Column by Prof. Brigit Toebes and Dr Machteld Hylkema
There are all kinds of smoking bans. We are used to smoking being prohibited in restaurants, bars and public buildings, but Groningen wants to take things a step further by becoming the Netherlands’ first no-smoking city. Some playgrounds and schools are already smoke-free zones, smoking is discouraged in higher education and as of this year, smoking is banned in and around the entrances to many public buildings.
A no-smoking city is important from the health angle. Research has shown a clear link between the introduction of smoking bans and the health of newborn babies. In addition, we now know that passive smoking is almost as bad for your health as actual smoking, although this mainly applies when people are exposed to second-hand smoke indoors. Every cigarette that isn't smoked helps to keep the air outside cleaner. Moreover, it's very unpleasant for the people who have to walk through a cloud of cigarette smoke to enter a hospital or school. In the case of young people, there's another important aspect: smoking sets a bad example.
How far are we prepared to go with smoking bans? The interests and rights of children play an important role in this respect. You want children and young adults to put off the decision to start smoking for as long as possible. After all, a quarter of young people smoke their first cigarette by the age of 13 but only 5% of smokers start smoking seriously after they hit 24. The introduction of smoking bans in places where children and young people congregate (playgrounds, schools, sports clubs) must therefore be given priority. No-smoking zones around buildings and no-smoking streets could be the next step towards creating a healthier environment. Interestingly, the United Kingdom and Italy are already ahead of the Netherlands in this respect and are cautiously positive about the introduction of a smoking ban in cars where children are passengers.
But this does not mean that we can introduce smoking bans as and where we like. We must gauge the support within society. A smoking ban is a violation of people’s right to self-determination and freedom of movement. To what degree can and should we curtail them? A smoking ban around public buildings is probably feasible, but no-smoking streets may, at present, be difficult to achieve.
One of the main objections to Groningen's plans is the difficulty of enforcing far-reaching smoking bans. People think that the intended bans will be pointless if they cannot be formally enforced. But enforcement experts agree that setting a new social norm is more important than formal enforcement. If we all agree that it is no longer acceptable to smoke around the entrance to a hospital, people will confront each other about it.
Smoking bans and other measures relating to tobacco are an effective way of making society healthier. Let's ensure that future populations of Groningen are given the chance to grow up healthily!
Professor Brigit Toebes is a health lawyer in the Faculty of Law at the University of Groningen; Dr Machteld Hylkema conducts pulmonary research at the University Medical Center Groningen.
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