Creeping legislation threatens national smoking habit

An increasing number of initiatives are starting to lessen the grip of smokers in Denmark though some argue more needs to be done to bring down tobacco related deaths

In a modern and sophisticated country, looked up to for its welfare state, the popularity of smoking is a stain on an otherwise positive international reputation.

But a variety of initiatives, laws and public statements made over the past few months seem to suggest that smoking in Denmark isn’t quite as cool as it used to be.

Most recently, a debate was triggered when the health spokesperson for government party Radikale, Camilla Hersom, said that she would ban cigarettes in Denmark in a perfect world.

“If it were possible then I think it would be a good idea. I’m convinced that if cigarettes were invented today then they would be banned,” Hersom said during an interview on Tuesday with radio station Radio24syv.

While Hersom conceded that tobacco had a long history in Denmark and that banning it would be completely implausible, her comments drew ire from the libertarian party Liberal Alliance (LA).

”Camilla Hersom’s wish to ban smoking as a matter of principle is an extreme version of nannying,” LA health spokesperson Joachim B. Olsen replied in a press release. “It is a desire to force a party’s politically correct values on all Danes. It is not an expression of responsibility, but rather an insight into a group of politicians who do not have faith that Danes know what’s best for them.”

Olsen’s response is perhaps indicative of Denmark’s laissez-faire and liberal approach towards tobacco; that it’s the responsibility of the individual, not the government, to decide whether or not to smoke.

This attitude could explain the incongruous message Denmark sends by touting its green energy credentials and large organic food industry, on the one hand, while also watering down efforts to curb smoking.

For instance, when Denmark followed Ireland and banned smoking in public indoor areas, exemptions were made for single person offices and bars with less than 40 sq. m of floor space for patrons.

But with anti-smoking campaigners slowly clawing away at smokers’ priveleges, they might not have it so good for that much longer.

First off are initiatives against smoking at work. Helsingør recently announced that council employees were only allowed to have one 15-minute coffee and cigarette break a week in order to increase productivity.

“We waste too much time because of these breaks,” Helsingør mayor Johannes Hecht-Nielsen told Frederiksborg Amts Avis. “It’s also about lost time from people moving to and fro from their work stations. But we’re not banning using a few minutes to have a cup of coffee with colleagues.”

While public servants protested and counselor Allan Berg Mortensen from the left-wing Enhedslisten bemoaned the “lack of faith” the proposal signals, statistics from cancer organisation Kræftens Bekæmpelse state that smokers work 50 minutes, or 11 percent, less a day than non-smokers, due to their habit.

It was for this very reason that the Copenhagen regional office of tax authority Skat decided last December that employees would have time taken smoking deducted from their pay check.

“We pay out about 400 million kroner in salaries to our employees,” Erling Andersen, the head of Skat Copenhagen, told Politiken newspaper. “For that money we expect a proper effort from our employees, so if they smoke it shouldn’t affect their work hours.”

The right to smoke in single person offices is also being targeted by anti-smoking campaigners. Politicians with offices in the parliament building have long used their right to smoke in their offices. But that practice turned into something of a scandal before Christmas, when it was revealed that the food minister, Mette Gjerskov, had installed a 34,000 kroner smoking cabin in her office, at the tax payers' expense, so she could avoid walking from the fourth floor to go outside.

Gjerskov was allowed to keep the cabin, though she agreed to pay for it herself. After parliament’s executive committee banned smoking in its single person offices, she would be unable to smoke in her office without it.

The government too is adding to the list of woes for smokers. Among the proposals in their recent smoking bill is a ban on smoking in single person offices, doubling the fines for establishments that break smoking laws and raising the legal smoking age from 16 to 18 . From this week, cigarette packs will also show graphic images of tobacco related diseases (The images, created by the EU, are also available with English captions.) 

But much to the disappointment of Kræftens Bekæmpelse, smoking cabins will still remain legal.

“[The laws] will improve conditions at youth institutions but won’t remove carcinogenic chemicals in the work environment,” Dr Inge Haunstrup Clemmensen said. “There is much to gain if Danish law also banned smoking rooms and cabins in workplaces. Twenty percent of Danes are still working in places that allow indoor smoking where carcinogenic compounds in tobacco smoke are able to spread from smoking rooms and cabins to nearby areas.”

So while attempts are being made to limit smoking in Denmark, there is still a resistance to fully embracing a tobacco-free culture. And while there are some positive signs – 400,000 Danes have quit smoking since 2007 according to the health ministry – 4,500 Danes still die every year from tobacco-related cancers.

For now then, Danes in smoky ‘brown bodegas’ and cabinet members in their own offices will continue to smoke cigarettes whose prices are kept low by manufacturers who sell packs of 18 or 19 instead of 20 in order to balance out increases to tobacco taxes such as the three kroner added over new year – a practice outlawed in Germany but perhaps not unsurprisingly in Denmark.

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