Tobacco Control Legislation in the Netherlands

By Prof. Brigit Toebes, PhD, and Willem Bantema, MSc, in collaboration with Wanda de Kanter, MD

Critics have warned that Dutch legislation and policy increasingly lag behind that of other countries when it comes to regulating tobacco. There have been criticisms on multiple fronts, including the lack of a firm smoking ban in all (public and/or private) spaces, the absence of warning labels with pictures and/or plain packaging on tobacco products, limited taxes on tobacco products, lack of display bans, reduction of sale points, and the absence of a comprehensive tobacco control campaign. Arguably, the current position is caused by the emphasis that Dutch society tends to place on autonomy and individual freedom.

Historical Overview of Legislation, Regulation, and Policy

The Dutch Tobacco Act, first adopted in 1988, prohibits smoking in all public buildings and in public transport. In 2004, the scope of the law was widened to include non-hospitality workplaces, except in separately ventilated areas not serviced by employees. More recently, in July 2008, the law was again expanded, rendering shopping malls, tobacco shops, gaming establishments, and convention centers smoke-free. The 2008 amendment also covers restaurants, cafés, bars, festival tents, and nightclubs, except in separately ventilated areas that are not serviced. Employees may only be required to enter such smoking rooms in emergency situations.

The Netherlands joined the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) on 27 January 2005.

In 2014, a substantial increase in excise duties was introduced, directly affecting retail prices. As a result, the cost of a pack of 20 cigarettes surpassed the €6 mark. Notwithstanding this recent price increase, the Dutch government has announced additional increases in excise duties for cigarettes and rolling tobacco to be implemented from 2015 onwards. Since January 2015, smoking is prohibited in all bars, including small establishments (see details below). The exception, however, leaves the ability to smoke in designated rooms and on open terraces intact. Recently (February 2016), the Dutch House of Representatives voted in favor of new legislation that would ban smoking in all schools and colleges, as well as on playgrounds beginning in the year 2020.

Under pressure from civil society, municipalities in the Netherlands are gradually renouncing their collaboration with the tobacco industry with whom many had previously entered into (financial) partnerships.

Smoking Ban in Small Cafés

The aforementioned implementation of the smoking ban in the hospitality industry was the most successful in restaurants and least successful in bars. Two years after introducing the smoking ban in Dutch bars, more than half of bar owners had violated the ban. This non-compliance attracted quite a lot of media attention and, on several occasions, resulted in court cases.

In February 2010, the Dutch Supreme Court ruled that the smoking ban must also apply to owner-run pubs and cafés without employees, thus rejecting an earlier ruling that small bar and café owners were exempt. Regardless of this ruling, the Dutch Minister of Health (Schippers) announced, in June 2011, an exemption to the smoking ban in small bars that do not serve food.

To combat non-compliance, fines for violations of the smoking ban were doubled in August 2011 to now reach €600 for the first violation, €1,200 for the second violation, €2,400 for the third violation and €4,500 for the fourth consecutive violation.

Dutch Court Cases in Which the FCTC Played a Role

Due to the Dutch “monist system,” treaties automatically form part of the Dutch legal order after their ratification. This means that the FCTC can be addressed directly in Court—which has now occurred on several occasions.

In 2012, the anti-smoking group Clean Air Nederland (CAN) took the Dutch State to court in an effort to enforce a ban on smoking in all bars. CAN argued that the current situation— of abundant non-compliance—led to an unfair competitive disadvantage for bars that do obey the law, and that the State violated the FCTC (Article 8-2). CAN’s victory in the appeals process was confirmed by the Supreme Court on October 10, 2014. As a result, State Secretary for Health (Van Rijn) announced immediate enforcement of the smoking ban in small bars on 21 July 2014, which entered into force in January 2015. At the end of 2015, about 93% of the bars were in compliance with the ban. Clear legislation and active enforcement appear to be effective. Although this new legislation abolishes the exemption for small bars, smoking is still allowed in closed smoking rooms and on open terraces. A new court case addressing this matter (again initiated by CAN) is currently pending before court.

Furthermore, in 2015 the Court of First Instance in the Hague addressed a complaint submitted by the Youth Smoking Prevention Foundation concerning the interaction between the Dutch government and the tobacco industry (based on Article 5-3 FCTC and human rights law). While the Court argued that Article 5-3 is insufficiently specific for the Court to rely on, the government has responded by taking various measures to restrict the interaction between itself and the tobacco industry. ✦