Harris: Don’t invest public funds in tobacco

Simon Harris says the Irish Strategic Investment Fund should be stopped from transferring public investments into the tobacco industry.

The Fund was initially established to support the Irish economy with profitable investments. Now it has about €1.5 million holdings in three tobacco companies. Being regulated by the National Treasury Management Agency, the fund also has about €3 million of financial contributions in brewers, distillers, etc.

The health minister Mr Harris along with the health promotion minister Marcella Corcoran Kennedy have sent an official letter to Michael Noonan with a suggestion to alter the investment policy. They ask to stop transferring the funds of taxpayers to tobacco corporations.

The fact that the letter has been sent was proved by the Ms Corcoran Kennedy herself as a response to the question by Jack Chambers, the Fianna Fail TD.

“In the context of a review of ISIF’s investment strategy, we have requested that the investment in tobacco companies be excluded.”

In 2014 the National Pensions Reserve Fund transitioned into ISIF. The investments in tobacco and alcohol were inherited by the fund at that stage.

“Such investments should be considered in the context of ISIF’s broader portfolio and the fund’s commitment to responsible investment,” Mr Noonan said.

As well as cigarettes and alcohol, the state investor has €11 million in energy companies. The fund is only prohibited from investing in companies that manufacture, test or maintain nuclear weapons under the Cluster Munitions and Anti-Personnel Mines Act 2008.

Eoghan Murphy, the junior finance minister, has already met with the fund and discussed developing an ethical investment policy that would exclude tobacco companies.

In 2013, Mr Murphy attempted to pass a bill that would set out ethical guidelines for the fund shortly before it was set up. A spokesperson for Mr Murphy yesterday said that he was in favour of divestment in tobacco companies.

An investment strategy review by the fund is due to be finished early next year and the government is hopeful that it will include restrictions on funding unethical companies which go against government policy.

Frances Fitzgerald, the justice minister, said the Common Investment Fund and the courts service, both under the control of her department, also held stock in tobacco related companies.

The Department of Health wants a tobacco-free society by 2025, which in practice means a smoking rate of less than 5 per cent of the population. Earlier this year, Mr Harris signed the EU’s Tobacco Products Directive, which includes a ban on all flavoured tobacco including menthol cigarettes, into Irish law.

The ban on menthol cigarettes will come into force from 2020 because they have more than a 3 per cent market share. Other flavours will be banned from next year.

E-cigarettes and nicotine refills will now be more tightly regulated with the introduction of advertising and safety standards, including limits on the nicotine volume in products. E-cigarettes will also have to carry health warnings.

The labelling of tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide levels on packets will be replaced with the message: “Tobacco smoke contains over 70 substances known to cause cancer.” Research has found that listing the levels of toxins is misleading because it makes consumers believe that some products are less risky to their health, the EU says.