February 22 2004
Health Minister Louis Deguara dismissed the General Retailers and Traders Association’s (GRTU) threat to defy the anti-smoking regulations which will come into force on 5 April as “unacceptable.”
Asked by MaltaToday for his reaction to the GRTU Director General’s threat that shop owners would be directed to ignore the new blanket ban on smoking in enclosed public places, Dr Deguara said he was, “disappointed but not surprised by his remarks.”
GRTU Director General Vince Farrugia slammed the health minister last Wednesday for passing a legal notice against smoking in public places without holding consultations with stakeholders. He said GRTU would be directing shop owners to challenge the “unjust” legislation if the regulations remained unchanged.
The minister replied: “As Mr Farrugia has frequently been quoted as saying that he is adamant in his belief that the best way of finding solutions to an issue is through discussion around a table, I was disappointed, but not surprised by his remarks. I reiterate that the GRTU never asked for a meeting with me on the issue since the legal notice was first published almost five months ago. Threats of defying the law are unacceptable in a democracy and definitely not conducive to reaching consensus.”
Both GRTU and the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association have accused the minister of arrogance for passing the legal notice without consulting anyone last September, and claimed the regulations will affect businesses negatively. “I have stated in Parliament that I am prepared to meet anyone requesting a meeting about this legal notice,” Dr Deguara replied. “Until now I have not received any formal request for such a meeting from either the GRTU or the MHRA. Others who have requested a meeting were given an appointment immediately.”
The GRTU head of the leisure and hospitality section, Philip Fenech, said he would request a formal meeting with the minister, “if it made him feel better.”
“The minister consulted nobody about this legal notice; even after we debated these regulations extensively on the media,” Mr Farrugia said when contacted. “Ethics would have required him to consult us, at least after our outcry, but he didn’t feel the need to. Well, if that’s the attitude the minister is taking we’ll ask him formally for a meeting ourselves, we have no problem with that.
“He just needs to realise that when our members’ livelihood is threatened we have every right to defend them. There has been no business impact analysis before these regulations were passed.” He added that GRTU had already met ministers John Dalli, Francis Zammit Dimech and Lawrence Gonzi to discuss the issue.
Even the Opposition slammed the minister for the way he introduced the new regulations, but Dr Deguara brushed off the criticism, saying it was his duty to curb smoking.
“The facts are known to everybody and nobody is disputing the harm done by smoking, even to passive smokers,” Dr Deguara said. “In spite of local intensive education campaigns since 1992, the fiscal measures to deter the habit and the free smoke cessation clinics, the rate of young smokers, especially women, is on the increase. So is the incidence of smoking-related disease, morbidity, unnecessary suffering and deaths. In view of the foregoing, and as this is purely a health issue, it is my responsibility to act.”
Surprisingly, Labour health spokesman Michael Farrugia – a doctor by profession – disagrees with the anti-smoking regulations.
“Given that cigarettes are a legal drug, then one should look both at the rights of smokers and non-smokers. I was in Brussels last week and at the hotel I was asked whether I wanted a smoker’s or non-smoker’s room. People were smoking in cafés, pubs and restaurants – and this is at the heart of Europe.
“The truth is that the government just passed these new regulations without consulting with all the stakeholders. We should have discussed the way these regulations are being introduced.
“There are also facilities available to eliminate smoke, such as extractors, which eliminate the need for a blanket ban on smoking; you don’t necessarily have to prohibit smoking because you can reduce smoke in the air to normal levels through such technology.”
Dr Farrugia also pointed out the flaws in the legislation which, he said, proved how hasty the government was in passing such regulations.
“Things could have been done much better,” Dr Farrugia added. “If we introduce these regulations while other countries permit smoking, it would be similar to telling tourists, “come to Malta when you quit smoking.” That’s obviously damaging to tourism, which is not in a very good state right now. When I was health minister we had issued a booklet advertising non-smoking restaurants for free. That’s the kind of positive action that is needed. We need a different education campaign as the present one is evidently not working.”
But Dr Deguara dismissed the GRTU’s charge that the government was “imposing” a blanket ban, and MHRA’s call for a gradual introduction of the regulations.
“Imposition would be implementing against the will of the majority, which on this is definitely not the case,” the minister said. “Unless somebody has a new definition of what democracy is all about, the new law actually reflects the expressed wish of over 80 per cent of the Maltese public to the introduction of smoking restrictions while respecting the right to smoke of the other 20 per cent. It is amusing how while the government is often accused of procrastinating, wasting time in endless discussions and hiding behind bureaucracy, it is now likewise being accused, albeit by those with a vested interest, of arrogance when it acts with determination and purely in the public interest.”
The regulations also provide for stiff fines on shop owners apart from the smokers themselves, as well as the suspension of licence and up to three months’ imprisonment on repeat offences.
Dr Deguara said nobody was imposing a blanket ban or threatening the owners with prosecution, imprisonment or loss of their licence, “although some are doing their very best at portraying this legal notice as such.”
Smoking will still be allowed in bars and restaurants but only in those areas designated as smoking areas, he added.
“Likewise, nobody is holding the owners of bars or restaurants directly responsible for patrons who flout the law as long as the former take all necessary measures as stipulated to conform to the provisions of the law,” Dr Deguara said. “The legal notice is intended as a just compromise between the sacrosanct right of any individual to smoke and harm himself but not others, and the equally sacrosanct right of non-smokers to a smoke-free environment. Unfortunately there are some who for personal or financial gain do not uphold this belief.”