Ireland’s smoking ban twenty years later: how an unknown official triumphed against big tobacco

EExactly twenty years ago, an Irish civil servant named Tom Power won a remarkable battle against the tobacco industry when Ireland imposed the world’s first smoking ban in bars, restaurants and workplaces.

Television crews from Japan, the US and elsewhere flocked to Dublin to document the events of March 29, 2004. Nobody knew what would happen. Would smokers revolt? Would pubs be flouting the law? Would a daring experiment go up in smoke?

After all, the tobacco industry had deep pockets and a versatile playbook to discredit restrictions by decrying the nanny state, health fascism, and the destruction of jobs and businesses. And a country famous for its smoky bars and rebellious spirit was an unlikely pioneer.

Within hours of the pubs opening, the TV crews got their answer. There was no rebellion and prohibition prevailed. It was an example that other countries followed, saving countless lives and bringing victory to a little-known official in the Ministry of Health.

“Tom Power was an encyclopedia on the tobacco industry,” says Michel Martin, then health minister. “He understood every move the tobacco industry would make.”

Members of the alliance that ushered in the ban compare Power to an engineer, a guide, and a chess grandmaster who anticipated and countered the opponent’s strategy. He died in 2005, aged 55, but the anniversary of Friday’s historic ban has shed new light on his role. Power’s son and daughter also attended a reunion of key figures who campaigned for the ban this week.

Smokers lit up outside a club in Dublin in 2004 after the smoking ban came into effect. Photo: Don McPhee/The Guardian

“Tom told us who on the political side were the dangers and who was the enemy,” says Luke Clancya respiratory physician who chaired Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), a group that was part of an alliance that lobbied for the ban.

Behind the scenes, Power guided the alliance through a test of strength with big tobacco and its proxies, Clancy says. “They saw Ireland as a crucial element. If they could beat Ireland, it wouldn’t spread to other countries. Tom organized and coordinated and told us, ‘So-and-so will come from this corner’.”

The success and repetition of the ban elsewhere have obscured the fact that it was not inevitable. New York, San Francisco and other cities in North America had introduced bans and some British cities planned to follow suit – but even with mounting evidence of harm from passive smoke, few thought a nationwide ban was feasible.

They couldn’t have been more wrong. Shortly after Ireland, Norway became the second country to introduce a smoking ban in the workplace in 2004, followed within four years by Sweden, New Zealand, Italy, Great Britain, France, eleven German states and India. Today, more than 70 countries ban smoking in workplaces and public places.

A smoker in a pub in Dublin in January 2003, on the day Michel Martin announced the smoking ban. Photo: John Cogill/AP

But at the time in Ireland it seemed a distant, even bizarre, proposition. Activists have been lobbying for greater restrictions for a decade. A voluntary code from 1992 was widely ignored, even though smoking was the leading cause of preventable deaths.

However, a 1999 legislative committee report documented the effect of environmental tobacco smoke, paving the way for a national anti-smoking strategy.

A champion was found in Power, a civil service veteran from County Tipperary who sat in the public health division and had a reputation for being unorthodox and idiosyncratic.

When Martin became health minister in a Fianna Fáil government in 2000, Power urged him to focus on tobacco. “We actually went ahead with it straight away. I was ready for this,” says Martin, who is now foreign minister and tánaiste (deputy prime minister).

Martin doubted that the Ministry of Health would have the necessary diligence, so he appointed Power to head a newly created tobacco control agency. “That meant we could hire people to do research. It gave us the opportunity to tackle the problem,” he says.

The minister and the official drafted legislation, commissioned a working group to study evidence of passive smoking, and forged alliances with ASH and other advocacy groups.

“Because Tom Power was there, there was no dust to collect,” says Wally Young, who advised ASH and is now a board member of the Irish Heart Foundation. “He was like an engineer in the background and had the knowledge to make it happen.”

When Martin announced the proposed ban to colleagues in January 2003, there was disquiet, not least from the Taoiseach. “There was some panic around the cabinet. I remember Bertie Ahern running down the stairs after me and saying, ‘When will that be implemented?’”

The scheduled date was January 1, 2004. A group called the Irish Hospitality Industry Alliance led the resistance, saying the ban would kill pubs and restaurants and destroy jobs. It hired four of Dublin’s leading law firms and received some support from the media. Martin says: “You see all these columns appearing in tabloids. You create this idea of ​​incompetence, madness, nanny state-ism and you try to undermine the credibility of the proposal.”

Advocates suspected – but could not prove – that the group was a proxy for the tobacco industry. It responded by enlisting the support of health boards, the Asthma Society, the Cancer Society, academics and trade unions representing hospitality workers forced to inhale second-hand smoke.

“It created a really important coalition that was bigger than the tobacco industry and the vintners combined,” says Young.

Opposition parties supported the ban, but Martin faced opposition in Fianna Fáil, prompting him to appoint a heart surgeon as an honorary member so he could address a party conference. He received a standing ovation.

Micheál Martin, Ireland’s foreign minister and tánaiste, has plaques in his office marking the 2004 smoking ban. Photo: Rory Carroll/The Guardian

Germany and Austria postponed the ban citing a possible impact on the EU’s single market, pushing back D-Day by three months to March 29. “A blessing in disguise. The weather was much better,” says Martin.

Yet there was nervousness about whether smokers would step outside to smoke – and whether pubs would force them. Early that morning, radio station 2FM sent an undercover reporter to a harbor café. She sat down at the bar and opened a pack of cigarettes as if to light it, prompting a reprimand from the bar staff.

“We welcomed it,” Martin recalls. “We said, ‘This is it – we’re on our way here’.”