MLAs back new laws on plain packs for cigs, but not before DUP huffs and puffs over the move
A bid to discourage young smokers by bringing in plain packaging for cigarettes in Northern Ireland has taken a step forward after an Assembly vote.
But there were warnings the move could mean smokers using counterfeit products – said to already account for one packet in five – as well as hitting jobs at the JTI plant in Ballymena.
But members of most political parties yesterday supported a special motion which would mean Westminster legislation being extended to the province – although the Secretary of State still needs a formal go-ahead from the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.
The proposal provoked intense debate on the unionist benches – and divided DUP MLAs in particular.
Health Minister Edwin Poots (right) and the MLA once tipped as his successor, Jim Wells, differed sharply with former Finance Minister Sammy Wilson and Alistair Ross.
Mr Poots intervened after Mr Wilson argued: "I am not a smoker... but I recognise that a quarter of the population, for one reason or another, wishes to engage in it. It creates health problems, but then so does drinking alcohol. We regularly hear that our A&E provision is inundated at weekends, and many of the problems happen because people present themselves intoxicated with alcohol.
"(And then there is) obesity because of people's attraction to fast food. The question is this: how many of these problems do we believe should be addressed by legislation, regulation and tighter restrictions? At what point do the general population say: 'Let us make up our own minds rather than you making our minds up for us'?"
Mr Poots, however, said 83% of the quarter of the population who smoke "wish that they did not".
"Many of them chose to smoke when not even an adult. That is what the legislation is about: creating a system whereby it is less attractive for children and young people to take up the most addictive habit and most addictive drug in Northern Ireland," he said.
But his former Executive and party colleague countered: "If banning advertising, stopping people smoking in public places and all the other measures that we have undertaken have not resulted in people giving up, and, in fact, we now see a small increase, we have to ask ourselves these questions: is this the way to deal with it?"
Mr Wells said Mr Wilson "cannot have his cake and eat it" by arguing the changes will have no impact on cigarettes smoking while also warning jobs will be lost in Ballymena.
He said that where Mr Wilson's point that advertising is aimed at getting customers to switch brands "falls down flat on its face... is that 100,000 people die in the UK every year as a direct result of smoking, so the industry has to attract 100,000 more people a year to take up the habit to keep up its production levels. That is the problem."
But Mr Wilson hit back: "We will make it easier for criminals who sell cigarettes without paying tax and jobs will be affected not as result of stopping people smoking but as a result of switching people to the criminal gangs who import cheap cigarettes."
He also hit out at UUP MLA Roy Beggs who said because of the designs of some cigarette packages "you think you are buying perfume".
Sinn Fein's Mickey Brady said it was "quite interesting to watch what might be termed internecine warfare on the opposite benches, albeit it was fairly civilised", but added that smoking is the single greatest cause of preventable illness.
And the SDLP's Fearghal McKinney said: "Plain packaging is a reasoned, research-supported mechanism for reducing the number of young people who take up smoking."