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Myth: Make sure youngsters don't start smoking, that is the best tactic

Myth: Make sure youngsters don't start smoking, that is the best tactic

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts/ Simone Golob

Myth busters

This myth is especially popular among politicians, says postdoc Gera Nagelhout, specialised in giving up smoking. Why? Because it makes for an easy score. Making schoolyards smoke-free zones? Of course, who doesn't want that? Raising the age limit from 16 to 18? Sure, do it today rather than tomorrow.

“Even the tobacco industry felt it was a good plan. Some manufacturers even took the initiative to put ‘only for adults’ on the packages. This was done to emphasise the prohibited character of smoking, which only makes it more attractive to teenagers. If politicians raise the age limit, the authorities need to strictly see to it that the law is being complied with. And that hardly ever happens.”

Of course, prevention among youths is not wrong, but however strange it may seem, in the case of smoking, curing is better than prevention. “Computer simulations have shown that a smoking-free society is achieved more quickly if you get smokers to quit smoking. Besides, it is not realistic to think that ‘prevention’ alone works, because young people will not collectively stay away from cigarettes, if their parents continue to smoke. That is why you have to do both: prevention and curing.”

By far the best tactic to get smokers to stop smoking, is to raise the price. “Not by ten cents each time, but by one or two euro in one go,” says Nagelhout, who also works as a lecturer at The Hague University of Applied Sciences. “That won't get you any votes, certainly not when there are elections, but it does work. In Australia, a packet of cigarettes costs almost twenty euro these days, and the number of smokers has dropped drastically. Only 15 per cent now smokes, against 26 per cent here.”

Another effective method is free nicotine plasters and chewing gum, medication, and coaching. “In 2011, health insurers did cover these expenses, but in 2012 they did not, only to do so again in 2013. This shows the ambivalence in Dutch policies. At the moment, they are paid for, although they do come under your policy excess. So in unfavourable cases, it could still cost a lot of money. I would say: make it completely free of charge! At least in the case of smokers with lower incomes.”

This is necessary because there is a divide among smokers. Since the ban on smoking in work places, more and more people with a higher education have given up their roll-ups, contrary to the lower educated. Smokers in the latter environment meet many like-minded people, which makes stopping more difficult.”

Nagelhout is involved in an experiment with fifty companies, where employees who smoke can earn 350 euro in gift vouchers if they stop. Are they susceptible to it or not? Interesting question, but does this trial not create bad feelings with the non-smokers who don't receive anything? “Fortunately, that does not seem to be an issue. People do not begrudge each other, and besides, the non-smokers see the advantages: colleagues who stop smoking take fewer breaks to have a smoke.”

Why not just ban smoking altogether in the Netherlands or in the EU? It was considered at one point, but a complete ban would not be a good idea at the moment, says Nagelhout. “In the first place, because it would promote illegal trade, and in the second place politicians are not prepared to enforce such a measure strictly.”

It would be much wiser to first reduce the number of smokers and then draw up an “end-game scenario”, like Australia is now considering. “One thing is sure: in the Netherlands, we must do more than we are doing at the moment. If we go on like this, the percentage will probably drop to 15 per cent and that’s it. It was possible in Australia, because there is broad political support for an anti-smoking policy. The Netherlands lacks a certain resoluteness and manufacturers have always had a lot of influence on policies.”

In Tasmania, there are plans to prohibit smoking for the generation born after the year 2000. Good idea? “Certainly! But not if that one measure is all they’re doing. I feel it would be unethical to leave smokers to fend for themselves.”


Mythbusters is a series in which academics shoot down popular myths on complex topics



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