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Prof. Arie Dijkstra: ‘Government must not abandon smokers to their fate’

03 January 2012

The liberal smoking policy of the government is as good as abandoning smokers to their fate. Once investment in smokers who want to stop decreases, the numbers will rise again. Although there is no immediate public interest, it is definitely up to the government to help this group of addicts break free from the cigarette. This is the opinion of health scientist Prof. Arie Dijkstra of the University of Groningen. He is specialized in addiction. ‘As far as I’m concerned, no-one has to quit smoking, but something extra needs to be done in order to reach smokers. After all, in most cases it’s an addiction.’

Arie Dijkstra
Arie Dijkstra


Dragging on the last cigarette while setting off the fireworks and then…quitting. Round about New Year, about one in seven smokers makes the attempt to break free of his or her addiction. That works out at about half a million people. In total, about 800,000 smokers a year try to quit. But it’s not easy. One of the great misconceptions is that if a smoker takes a drag from someone else’s cigarette on 3 January, a day later begs five from various people, and finally buys his own pack again that that means he’s a weakling. Dijkstra: ‘Quitting smoking is not hard, as long as you don’t expect to succeed the first time. If you’ve been smoking for twenty or thirty years that’s just not realistic. You don’t expect someone suffering from depression to suddenly perk up if someone just says, “Chin up, look at that sun shining...” A single attempt is not in proportion to the seriousness of the addiction. At least 50 to 70% of those who want to quit do succeed eventually.’  

Quitting is a learning process

Dijkstra has also established that it is disastrous for the motivation of the prospective ex-smoker if someone tells him that there’s no point even trying. ‘What’s always being emphasized is how difficult it is to quit. Pfizer, who sells an anti-smoking drug, says on its site that only 3 to 5% of smokers successfully quit. That’s right, but only applies to each single attempt. That’s exactly what you should not tell smokers, it’s the most depressing statistic you could present. Smokers have enough trouble with motivation as it is. The simple fact is that they are not completely responsible any more when it comes to smoking. What should be emphasized is that quitting smoking is a stop-start learning process.’  

Government’s smoking policy

First and foremost, as far as Dijkstra is concerned, people can continue smoking if they want to. Not a single public interest is affected by them extinguishing their last cigarette. On the contrary, research has revealed that per person, non-smokers throughout their lives cost healthcare tens of thousands of euros more than smokers. However, that does not change the fact that the government should be stimulating people to quit smoking. ‘In addition, a government should want quality of life to be increased. That’s not only a question of economics.’

This is why Dijkstra is concerned about the liberal smoking policy of the current cabinet, which lays responsibility for quitting completely with the smoker. ‘The government left the tobacco industry to its own devices for years. It’s still very easy to get a smoke, the government’s really let that slide. If you look at other European countries you can see that things could have been different. In comparison with them, we brought up the rear on antismoking policy for years.’ 


Dijkstra won’t lose much sleep over the fact that a visit to the ‘stop shop’ is no longer covered by the basic health insurance. Only a few smokers, for example, attended the effective ‘quit smoking’ courses offered by Stivoro, which were covered. However, information provision is a perfect example of a public duty that really does appear to have an effect. ‘It should be about supporting self-help, about helping smokers to quit if that’s what they want to do’, according to Dijkstra. ‘I attach much less value to measures against passive smoking, like the ban on smoking in the catering industry. Those are very rough and ready measures. That’s just the sort of thing that you can leave to the market; there are many other very effective alternative solutions for passive smoking.’  

Grey packs

Good information is essential, but that’s not the only possible effective measure. Some countries see the key in cigarette packaging. Dijkstra thinks that’s a possibility, although the depressing illustrations on packs of cigarettes could also have the opposite effect. ‘No, just make them grey’, thinks Dijkstra. ‘That’s my favourite measure. You leave smokers alone, but it becomes a lot less attractive for teenagers and younger smokers.’ In the Netherlands the number of smokers has declined to less than 30 percent. However, Dijkstra fears that the end of the decline is in sight. ‘Now that the government has pulled out, I expect the percentage of smokers to quickly increase again. Unless of course others take over the baton, like KWF, the Dutch Cancer Society. That’s definitely a possibility, but all it does is conceal the fact that it’s something the government should be doing.’  

Curriculum Vitae

Prof. Arie Dijkstra (Hoogeveen, 1961) is professor of the Social Psychology of Health and Illness at the University of Groningen and is specialized in addiction. He has published on this topic in renowned journals such as Addiction and Health Psychology. 


Take a look at the video of Arie Dijkstra: Stop smoking with a personal advice (RUG Adams Appel programme from 2008)

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.10 p.m.
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