The tobacco smoking ban at street-level

On 3 August it was announced that the municipality of Rotterdam has plans to impose a ban on tobacco smoking for several streets. The Erasmus Medical Center, the Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences and the Erasmiaans Gymnasium launched this initiative to protect public health. To guarantee that there will be no smoking in front of their entrances, there would effectively be a smoking ban on three streets near their buildings. Apparently other municipalities are also eager to designate non-smoking zones in their Algemene Plaatselijke Verordening (APV, a local ordinance in Dutch law).

Actually I’m surprised that smoking in public is still allowed. I suspect electoral motives are playing a role here. Because there are so many smokers, a ban on smoking could cost votes for the political parties who enact such a ban. Perhaps the fact that smoking is on a slow decline in the Netherlands is the reason that we are seeing more action on this issue today.

It’s strange that smoking is dealt with so weakly in comparison with other drugs. Take cannabis, a drug which poses a health risk roughly equal to or lower than tobacco. Smoking cannabis in public is already banned in most municipalities, who also use the APV for this. Or psilocybin mushrooms, mushrooms with a psychedelic effect. Even though these are not addictive and are barely harmful for public health, they were banned completely in 2008. By comparison tobacco is a mass murderer which faces almost no constraints.

We should distinguish between how damaging a drug can be for public space in theory and in practice. In an ideal situation we aren’t troubled by tobacco smokers who smoke at a good distance from other people. In practice however I see that many smokers on the bus stations and platforms of Utrecht Centraal don’t keep that distance. They smoke close to other groups of people waiting for the train or bus, who still receive second-hand smoke.

Many smokers also throw their cigarette butts on the street because cleaning up is too much work for them. The excuse is probably that they can’t throw a cigarette which isn’t extinguished in the litter bin. When I recently seated myself on a bench in a park in The Hague during my lunch break, I noticed the ground around the bench was littered with cigarette butts. It looked like they had accumulated there over some days or weeks. Apart from that smoking in public always gives a bad example to children.

This ambition to ban smoking in public comes late, but is very welcome. I do hope that we can institute a nationwide ban on smoking in public instead of having to wait for every individual municipality in our country to take action. There is no reason why smoking should be banned in some streets in Rotterdam while it would still be allowed on the Grote Marktstraat in The Hague.

Because a complete smoking ban might play into the hands of illegal production and criminals, I don’t wouldn’t advocate a complete smoking ban. I would treat tobacco roughly equal to cannabis, assuming that cannabis production will probably be legalized in the near future. So only legal sale in coffee shops (so no tobacco sale in super markets and such!) and use banned in public.

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