New tobacco regulations might go up in smoke

21st July 2003, Comments 0 comments

The Netherlands' anti-smoking campaigns have gained steam in recent years, but are the Dutch ready to kick the habit? Not likely, reports Cormac Mac Ruairi.

As the senate considers a proposal to tighten the lax Dutch smoking regulations, advocates and opponents agree the chamber is evenly split, reflecting a nationwide ambivalence about smoking.

The image of the healthy Dutch cyclist does not fit well with the fact that around 33 percent of the adult population smoke. The Netherlands is in the premier league of smoking when compared to the US rate of 20 percent, 24 percent in France and 25 percent in Belgium.

Trudy Prins of the anti-smoking organisation Defacto says there has been a slight decline in the percentage of smokers in the last year, but in Europe only Spain, Greece and Germany have higher rates. A third of all Dutch men and 29 percent of women smoke.

The Dutch cancer association estimates that between now and 2015 about 17 percent of all male deaths and 11 percent of female deaths will be due to smoking. In total 330,000 deaths in the Netherlands over the next 15 years will be as a direct result of smoking, the association says.

Living in a cloud of second-hand smoke

The Dutch emphasis on personal freedom and the tolerant attitude to soft drugs are major factors in the reluctance to impose tougher restrictions on smoking, says Fons Nijpels, chairman of the non-smokers association Can.

"Currently," he says, "it is up to the non-smoker to make a fuss to vindicate the right to clean air in the workplace and other public places."

People don't want to be seen moralising but that often means non-smokers have to put up with breathing in second-hand smoke. "Smoking is condoned almost everywhere. Even on Dutch television, you will sometimes see a guest or even members of the audience smoking during a talk show," he says.

Nijpels also finds it worrying that increasing numbers of young people, and particularly young women, are taking up smoking.

"More than 50 percent of the young people you see on any street are smoking. We know 50 per cent of these will die from smoking related diseases, half by the age of 50," he claims.

The drive to quit

Nijpels says the Netherlands could learn from numerous examples of effective educational campaigns to alert people to the dangers of smoking.

For example, the British Medical Journal reported recently that the UK has had the world's largest fall in premature deaths from lung cancer thanks to the drive to help smokers give up. And following combined legislation and education between 1988 and 1999, California reduced cigarette use per capita by almost 50 percent, while it declined by only 10-20 percent in the rest of the US.

Among the EU states, France, Belgium, Ireland and the UK have taken the lead in the fight against smoking, and perhaps now the Netherlands is ready to follow. In June the parliament's health committee voted in favour of a new regulations:

  • banning almost all tobacco ads ·
  • banning the sale of tobacco to children under 16 ·
  • banning smoking in the workplace, ·
  • increasing regulation of vending machines to prevent children purchasing ·
  • restricting smoking in public places ·
  • providing for a structure of fines

The senate must ratify the changes and it is expected it will vote on the matter in the near future. However, Nijpels doesn't expect an easy victory. "It will be a close thing. You can never predict what the senate will do, as members don't always follow the party line. Nevertheless, the Christian Democrats (CDA) and the Liberals (VVD) have a majority in the senate and they voted against the proposals in the Lower House."

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