The Netherlands refuses to take significant action as ruling parties fear blowback
The Dutch are good with their teenagers. Surveys show the youngsters are the happiest in Europe, with plenty of friends, relatively little bullying at school, and few unwanted pregnancies. So it comes as no surprise to see that smoking is disappearing too among the under-16s.
A new study by the National Statistics Office shows a consistent drop over the past 20 years. In the late 1990s some 10 per cent of under-16s had already taken up the regular smoking habit – but now that figure has dwindled to just 1.3 per cent, the trend is consistently downwards.
The statistics confirm a survey by Maastricht University a few years ago which showed smoking in school – whether behind the bike sheds or elsewhere – was just not cool anymore. In sociological terms, smokers were “no longer among the most influential majority group”.
The truth though is that the Netherlands has not overnight become a society where things change automatically for the better. This transformation is directly linked to a ban on the sale of cigarettes to under-16s introduced in 2003 – combined with a rigorous no-smoking policy in schools.
In a nutshell, enforcement has worked, a proposition supported by the second part of the latest statistics office survey, which shows that young people are simply falling prey to the killer addiction later – in their 20s, when they are free to make their own life choices.
In fact, the figures show that the highest proportion of smokers of any age is among twentysomethings. Almost 40 per cent of them smoke, 60 per cent of them every day.
The habit falls back slightly for the over-30s, but by then – as the song says – it’s a hard habit to break. A huge 85 per cent simply continue on smoking every day to the detriment of their health, particularly as they get older.
In fairness to the dogged Dutch, those who kick the habit are relentless in their determination. Some 30 per cent of smokers who quit never smoke again, well above the European average of 21 per cent. The problem though remains. It’s just the smokers who are older.
But are smokers really victims, or is smoking, indeed, simply a lifestyle choice?
Very much the former, say Amsterdam lawyer Benedicte Ficq and lung-cancer patient Anne Marie van Veen, who are planning a court action against tobacco companies for “purposely and premeditatedly” endangering smokers’ health – something the companies will vigorously deny.
“Our point is that smokers’ ability to choose has been influenced by the addition to cigarettes of addictive substances such as nicotine and additives with the specific intention of limiting that freedom of choice”, says Ficq, who wants possible prison sentences for tobacco company executives.
“This is unacceptable on many levels but particularly when children and young adults are among those being targeted.”
Victims or not, almost one-quarter of Dutch citizens over 15 are smokers – and roughly half that number will die of smoking-related diseases at a rate of about 20,000 a year.
That raises questions from anti-smoking campaigners about why the government is choosing what they regard as easy options – scary pictures on cigarette packages and public information campaigns – rather than tough love in the form of substantial tax increases, a form of enforcement that’s been shown to work in Sweden and Australia.
A vocal advocate of hitting smokers where it hurts – in their pockets – is Eric van den Burg, an alderman in Amsterdam with prime minister Mark Rutte’s Liberal Party. In his opinion, smokers should face an immediate tax increase of at least €10 a packet.
Where the tobacco interests and the pro-choice lobby in the Liberals are wrong, he contends, is that not every person is capable of making an independent-minded decision about smoking. “Addicts are not free to choose – that’s what makes them addicts,” he argues.
Van den Burg also points to the inevitable voter backlash that would follow in next year’s general election were the Liberal-Labour coalition to pluck up its courage and act for what he sees as the public good by increasing tobacco taxes.
His calculation is simple: in a political landscape in which Rutte’s Liberals are being closely challenged by Geert Wilders and his anti-immigrant Freedom Party, a tax hike on fags would lead directly to the loss of two or even three crucial seats.
For Labour, the blowback would be even worse, he maintains, simply because there tends to be more smokers among people on lower incomes, typically Labour followers.
Still, such cold-hearted realpolitik couldn’t possibly be the rationale for making public health decisions that cost lives. Could it?