May 31 is another World No Tobacco Day, the United Nations’ cri de coeur against smoking. Almost a quarter of people over 15 in the Netherlands smoke. Half their number, over 20,000 people, will die of smoking-related illnesses.
Public health director-general Angelique Berg agrees that smoking should be actively discouraged but her plan – scary pictures on packaging and information campaigns in schools – is mere window dressing. It won’t stop young people from taking up smoking nor will it help young smokers to kick the habit.
She has failed to mention the most effective strategy for combating tobacco use: a tax hike. In countries which do use fiscal measures to tackle smoking, such as Australia and Sweden, the number of smokers is significantly lower than in the Netherlands.
Another obvious measure would be to limit the sale of tobacco to licensed outlets but this has met with vociferous protests from the supermarket and petrol station lobby. Angelique Berg is keeping quiet about this too.
On January 28 2016 a plenary session in the Dutch parliament about the tobacco law was attended only by the tobacco spokesmen for seven parties in an otherwise empty chamber. Most politicians show no sense of urgency at all about the subject in spite of the fact that we are being faced with a national health crisis. Every year ten times as many people die of smoking-related illnesses as perished in the flood of 1953, and smoking deaths outnumber traffic deaths by 35.
Thirteen motions and amendments were proposed during the debate. The VVD and PVV rejected all anti-tobacco motions and Labour, for the most part, concurred. Their philosophy is a simple one: people have a choice. It’s up to them to decide to smoke or not to smoke. There was no mention of the fact that once people are addicted they no longer have that choice.
The VVD’s Eric van den Burg, an alderman in Amsterdam, does understand. In a debate at the Balie on May 8 he said that his party and its tobacco spokesperson in particular ‘are mistaken in that they think everyone is capable of making the right choice’.
Free to choose?
Addicts are not free to choose; it’s what makes them addicts. Van den Burg thinks the price of a packet of cigarettes should go up by €10. But it won’t happen, he says, because ‘the lobby and powerful tobacco industry are preventing this from happening’. And, he added, ‘a tax hike would cost the VVD two to three seats and naturally that is something the party would want to avoid’.
The same goes for Labour. Even Labour’s tobacco spokesperson, family doctor Marith Volp, is not promoting a tax rise. It’s easy to understand why. It would be the smokers among the Labour electorate – people on low incomes – who would be hardest hit. Labour stands to lose more than the VVD in this respect.
There can only be one conclusion: smoking is an addiction perpetuated by a coalition motivated by electoral gain. Society is paying the price: deadly diseases, premature deaths, productivity loss and huge health care costs.
There is still some time to go until the next elections but who should we vote for if we want to protect society, and children in particular, from the dangers of tobacco? Simply vote for the party which at the very least includes a commitment to increase tax on tobacco and limit its sale to designated outlets in its manifesto.
This article appeared earlier in the NRC