Health Of Children Must Come First

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Legislation to remove cigarette displays in shops and prevent underage access to vending machines will save children’s lives, Health Minister Michael McGimpsey said today.

The Minister was speaking in the Assembly to ask for the endorsement of the Health Bill to be extended to Northern Ireland.

Mr McGimpsey said: “I could have brought legislation forward as an Assembly Bill, however, it was essential that the legislation, particularly in relation to tobacco, was available at the earliest possible date in order to protect our children and young people.

“I recognise the concerns of retailers who are worried this will have an impact on their business and I have agreed to meet with industry representatives and shop stewards in the near future.

“I have said that I want to introduce these measures as early as possible and am hopeful that this will happen by 2010. However, we cannot afford to delay.”

The Republic of Ireland has adopted similar legislation which commences on 1 July this year. England, Scotland and Wales intend to adopt similar measures between 2011 and 2013.

The Minister continued: “As the only part of the United Kingdom to share a land border with another European state I am not prepared to wait four years.

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“The stark facts are that in 2007, almost 9% of children aged between 11 and 16 in Northern Ireland were regular smokers. These children are 3 times more likely to die of cancer due to smoking than someone who starts in their mid-twenties. In fact, the vast majority (77%) of adult smokers in Northern Ireland started in their teens. These are shocking statistics and it is clear we must address this issue urgently.”

“I am in the business of saving lives. If it is good enough to introduce this legislation in four years time then I believe we should not wait any longer than is necessary. We must not put wealth before health. Are people really asking me to put economic concerns over tobacco sales before the health of our children. This is a matter of conscience. I cannot and will not do this.”

Advertising and promotion of tobacco was banned in 2002, and since then, the Minister said that the tobacco industry has responded by making displays increasingly larger, so much so that they are now a greater source of promotion and temptation to children and adults alike.

He added: “Research shows that children and young people are particularly susceptible to advertising and those exposed to tobacco advertising are more likely to take up smoking.

“Advertising is making the decisions for children and before they realise it they are hooked. We must take every action to stop our children from getting on that malignant conveyor belt which only leads to addiction and ill-health.”

The Bill also proposes provisions which would grant the Department Of Health, Social Services and Public Safety powers to control the sale of tobacco products from vending machines. The new powers will allow for either the prohibition of such machines or for age restriction to prevent access by under eighteens.

The Minister said: “Vending machines currently provide a common and easily accessible source of tobacco for young people. Figures from the British Heart Foundation estimate that there could be as many as 1,500 children aged between 11-15 accessing their cigarettes through vending machines locally. And because vending machines are ‘self-service’ there are currently no routine age checks carried out prior to purchase. That is why these restrictions are being introduced.”

Smoking remains the single greatest cause of preventable illness and premature death in Northern Ireland. Every year around 2,300 people here die from smoking related illnesses.

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