Will cigarette sales go up in smoke?

Martin Buijsen

In recent years, several steps have been taken in the hope of making the Netherlands smoke-free. Taxes on tobacco were increased, smoking areas were closed, tobacco products were removed from customers’ sight and the number of tobacco sales outlets was reduced. The campus of Erasmus University has also been completely smoke-free since the academic year of 2020-2021. New Zealand recently took an even bigger step  by creating a generational law banning cigarette sales. By doing so, the country hopes to create a smoke-free generation. A sales ban is also being considered in the Netherlands. According to Martin Buijsen, Professor of Health Law at Erasmus School of Law, such a ban is justified in the interest of public health.

“We want to make sure young people never smoke again”. Under this credo, New Zealand’s Health Minister ushered in the law in progress. Smokers currently already pay a high price in New Zealand, a pack of cigarettes costs 25 euros. Still, the government strives for a complete ban. The law will prohibit stores from selling cigarettes to people born after 1 January 2009. The ban will take effect by 2027 when these children turn 18. The goal of the law is that, eventually, cigarettes will no longer be allowed to be sold to anyone. 

In the Netherlands, political parties such as CDA, PvdA and VVD are impressed by such a ban and are interested in the possibility of a sales ban in the Netherlands. Maarten van Ooijen – State Secretary of the Dutch Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport – wants to investigate the possibility of a ban from 2035. This would mean that children born in 2017 will never be able to purchase cigarettes. When these children turn 18 in 2035, the minimum age for tobacco sales will yearly be raised by one year. There are also possibilities regarding a ban on e-cigarettes. “After all, e-cigarettes have now been established as a prelude to smoking tobacco products”, Buijsen tells. 

Who is responsible? 

When discussing a ban, Dutch politicians turn to Europe. After all, according to State Secretary van Ooijen, banning cigarette sales requires regulation at the European level and cooperation with neighbouring countries. However, anti-smoking activists argue that the Netherlands should take matters into its own hands and take steps on its own. According to Buijsen, the initiative for a sales ban lies with the Dutch state, but its effectiveness does depend on European consensus. “European law does not prohibit a member state from reaching stricter legislation on this point than in other member states. However, the question within the European Union is to what extent such legislation is effective if it is not regulated in the same way in other member states”, Buijsen explains. 

Private life or public health: which right prevails? 

When considering a sales ban, different rights seem to clash. Does the right to public health apply to everyone? Or should the right to respect private live be considered? According to Buijsen, curbing this right is justified if public health requires it: “Necessity and proportionality are important requirements when it comes to limiting the right to respect for private life. Obviously, it must first be considered whether the legitimate goal of protecting public health cannot be achieved with lighter measures.” Therefore, since measures have already been taken that successfully reduced the number of smokers, the European Court may now also take this step in the context of protecting public health.  

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