The DUP’s Ian Paisley has called for party colleague Jim Wells to apologise for his part in the introduction of plain tobacco packaging - which the North Antrim MP blamed for the loss of almost 1,000 jobs in his constituency.
The two high profile colleagues clashed yesterday on social media platform Twitter, as the introduction of plain packaging regulations on cigarette packs came into force; at the same time 500 employees at the JTI Gallaher cigarette factory in Mr Paisley’s constituency left work for the last time on Friday.
Mr Wells posted on Twitter yesterday: “Pleased to see plain paper packaging for cigarettes is being introduced for Northern Ireland. I approved this when I was Health Minister.”
However his party colleague Mr Paisley hit back soon after on the same social media platform: “980 workers in my constituency lost jobs as a result daft policy that will not save one life. You should apologise.”
The tensions were picked up on the Stephen Nolan Show, where Mr Paisley said he was a close friend of Mr Wells but that the job losses came first.
“I count him as a very good friend, but my first duty is to my constituents,” he said.
He added that “before anyone celebrates and applauds these policies, the effect has been this morning 500 people in my constituency left their employment for the last time”.
However in a statement to the Nolan Show, Mr Wells responded that he “had not seen the tweet [from Mr Paisley]” and defended his support for the plain packaging ban.
“The decision on plain paper packaging (PPP) was approved by me as health minister, the executive and the first and deputy first ministers,” he said.
“It covers all the UK. The Gallaher decision was not based on PPP”.
In February 2015, when he was Health Minister, Mr Wells backed UK-wide plans to introduce standardised cigarette packaging.
Wales and Scotland also backed the move, and the regulations were then due to come into effect this month.
Back in 2015, Mr Wells said: “Branding on cigarette packets provides one of the last opportunities for tobacco companies to promote their products.
“Evidence shows that young people are more receptive to this type of advertising than adults.”
JTI Gallaher said previously that it had “fought very hard” against plain packaging proposals in the UK, under the EU’s Tobacco Products Directive 2 (TPD2) - as well as the trade in smuggled cigarettes.
The firm also said the implementation of TPD2, which also bans small packs, would affect 40% of the overall production at Ballymena.