‘Hidden Heroes’ and the Smoking Ban


Fifteen years ago today, one of the most controversial public health measures in our history — the workplace smoking ban — came into effect on 29 March 2004.

What’s remarkable about the ‘smoking ban’ is that the years of dispute and debate that preceded it disappeared almost immediately — just like the smoke that used to pollute the air in our bars, cafes and other public places.

Given all the hoohaa that went before it, it’s important to remind ourselves just how successful the measure has been — particularly given that Ireland was the country that pioneered this public health innovation.

Research from the 2016 Healthy Ireland Survey shows that less than one-in-five adults — 18% — are now exposed to second hand smoke on a daily basis. And unlike the situation before 29 March 2004, this exposure clearly does not occur in their workplace as the legislation and its successful implementation has eliminated this.

Another indicator of the smoking ban’s success is the fact that it has since been copied in many other jurisdictions around the world and in people’s homes too. And, of course, there is no demand at all to reverse it. People are rightly proud of this significant public health innovation.

While much of the credit for the smoking ban rightly goes to Micheál Martin — the then Minister for Health, who took on many of his own parliamentary colleagues and his party’s benefactors and supporters in the hospitality sector in the interests of public health — the real brains behind this measure and many of the other public health tobacco measures that followed such as eliminating 10 packs, ending point-of-sale advertising and introducing plain packaging with health warnings — was a public servant called Tom Power.

I was lucky to have worked with Tom as communications consultant to the Office of Tobacco Control which he headed up. He was an extraordinarily visionary man but also incredibly modest. He developed the strategy, put a top-class team in place — including my good self — and encouraged, reassured and cajoled us to drive forward the campaign.

While Tom was very measured and understated he was still very impactful. I remember setting up and attending a meeting between Tom and some senior trade union leaders — people who were somewhat sceptical of the smoking ban proposal and were only meeting us as a personal favour to me. After meeting Tom and hearing him calmly and matter-of-factly inform them about how the tobacco industry markets its products to children and uses marketing and sales techniques — long discredited and disowned in the Developed World — in the Developing World, the afore-mentioned trade union leaders became totally committed to the cause. As one said to me immediately afterwards, we’re prepared to do whatever needs to be done to get the smoking ban across the line.

Few people have ever heard of Tom Power or his central role in this process because he never sought the limelight — it was never about him, it was all about the cause. Indeed, tragically, he died in office a few months after the smoking ban came into effect.

However, Tom Power had made his mark and through his extraordinary strategic abilities and skills in people management, Ireland took the ground breaking step of creating smoke free workplaces.

So spare a thought today for the hidden heroes like Tom who get important things done without seeking the spotlight for themselves — real servants of the public interest!

And given the day that’s in it, I thought it appropriate to include a track from Air and their Moon Safari album, the beautiful All I Need.

Pat Montague