EUR researcher: ‘This lawsuit against the tobacco industry is definitely worth a shot’

More and more Dutch hospitals are suing the tobacco industry, joining a pending criminal procedure. According to the first hospital that joined, the Antoni van Leeuwenhoek – which specializes in cancer treatment - the fight against cancer doesn’t really stand a chance as long as the tobacco industry deliberately stimulates addiction to cigarettes. Assistant professor in Law & Health Care Ernst Hulst (ESHPM) approves of the lawsuit: ‘Although it’s not a crime to sell cigarettes, the interesting thing is these companies may be found guilty of misleading the public.’

How do you feel about this legal battle in general?

‘I think it’s good that it’s happening. Smoking is very addictive, it’s extremely difficult to quit and even a cigarette a day is damaging to people’s health. Some critics may ask: who is next - the alcohol industry? But that’s completely different – there’s no scientific proof that the occasional consumption of alcohol endangers people’s health, or leads to addiction. Plus smoking has a negative impact on everyone around.’

Does the lawsuit even stand a chance? It sounds like a pretty big challenge – especially because smoking is a matter of choice.

‘It’s fair to wonder if a lawsuit like this is even feasible, as smoking has been part of our lives for so long. But if that’s your reasoning, it’s the same with the natural gas extraction in Groningen. That has been going on for years as well, but now it’s being criticized.

'If you ask me, this lawsuit is not about the industry purposely killing people. You’d have to have solid evidence to have them convicted them of a thing like that. That’s not going to happen. Selling cigarettes is, after all, legal. But the interesting and exciting part is the potential proof of misleading the public, or omitting information. Sure, tobacco companies print these upsetting images on packages that say ‘smoking kills’ underneath, but what exactly makes it so dangerous? Is it true that the tobacco industry is deliberately trying to get people addicted to a product that is damaging  to their health, without being honest about it? That might well be a criminal offence. If you’re selling dangerous stuff, you should admit to that. This lawsuit’s definitely worth a shot.’

 I believe in strongly discouraging people from smoking and forcing the industry to be open

Assistant professor in Law & Health Care Ernst Hulst (ESHPM)

What do you think about hospitals joining the legal battle?

‘Some critics say hospitals should just stick to curing people. But every day, they see people that shouldn’t be sick at all. We also prosecute people who deal in hard drugs, right?’

If this lawsuit is a success, what could be the possible outcome?

‘If they can prove the tobacco industry is misleading people, that is a violation of tobacco law. Tobacco companies could be forced to include instructions for use, the kind that is mandatory with medication. The exciting thing is that the judge might say: by misleading the public you’re committing a felony and there’s a punishment for that. The prohibition of cigarettes, however, doesn’t seem a realistic outcome to me and I don’t think it a desirable one either. As with drugs, I think a certain form of regulation is better, and you can’t regulate products that aren’t legal. I believe in strongly discouraging people from smoking and forcing the industry to be open.'