Big tobacco pays Dutch opposition to smoking ban

Bar owners resisting the smoking ban in the Netherlands have received financial, strategical and legal support from tobacco companies, research by NRC Handelsblad shows.
Ton Wurtz.

Ton Wurtz, treasurer of the foundation ‘Red de kleine horecaondernemer’ (Save the small hospitality entrepreneur), has admitted to receiving “about 50,000 euros per year” from the tobacco companies. Wurtz also holds biweekly strategy talks with Willem Jan Roelofs, the chairman of the cigarette industry foundation SSI, he said.

Smoking was banned in cafes, bars, hotels and restaurants in The Netherlands a year ago. Just before the ban went into effect on July 1, 2008, Wurtz, who has been the spokesperson for a foundation that stands up for smokers since 1993, and other seasoned tobacco lobbyists established the foundation to represent the interests of small cafe owners.

The smoking ban was primarily adopted to guarantee the right of employees to work in a smoke-free environment. But critics say small bars, with no employees except the owners, should be exempt from the ban. Several court cases are underway against cafes that defied the ban.

The law firm representing the small cafe owners has been negotiating with the tobacco industry about the possibility of it bankrolling future lawsuits challenging the smoking ban.

Tobacco companies can count on even less sympathy than smokers, so they often pay others to do their lobbying for them, said professor of political science Rinus van Schendelen.

“We are talking to several parties about financing a procedure, SSI amongst them,” Marco Gerritsen of the Van Diepen Van der Kroef law firm confirmed. “They haven’t promised anything yet.”

SSI’s is a collaboration between British American Tobacco (Pall Mall cigarettes), Imperial Tobacco (Gauloises) and Japan Tobacco International (Camel); Philip Morris (marlboro cigarettes sale) left the group in 2005. Tobacco companies fear a decline of 5 percent of sales because of the smoking ban in bars. Roelofs: “That is a substantial loss in an already contracting market.” He denied the SSI has any intention to finance future court cases.

Next Friday is the court date for the appeals case against one cafe in Groningen, De Kachel. That bar was fined 1,200 euros for violating the ban in February. In a similar case against a bar in Breda, the appeals court in May ruled in favour of the owners, saying the national ban lacks the legal basis to impose it on small establishments without hired staff.

Van Diepen Van der Kroef represents both bars. The legal fees are being paid with contributions by the members of Wurz’ foundation. Bars and cafes each pay an annual fee of 250 euros. The foundation has so far received 250.000 in fees, but with legal expenses estimated at 350.000 euros, he said he is already 100.000 short.


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