Health & Science

Dutch Court orders to act against the sale of filter cigarettes in the Netherlands

A Court in Rotterdam rules that the Netherlands has six weeks to act against the sale of filter cigarettes. It considers the way harmful substances inhaled by smokers are measured in the European Union cannot guarantee it complies with the maximum levels allowed.

Hand of a smoker holding a cigarette
Hand of a smoker holding a cigarette. Smokers largely close the holes on filters when they puff | © Jocelyn Lusseau

The District Court of Rotterdam on November 4 ruled that the Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (NVWA) has six weeks to take enforcement action against the sale of filter cigarettes in the Netherlands.

The reason behind the ruling is that hazardous substances inhaled by smokers of filter cigarettes are probably much higher in reality than what is measured in labs with machines.

Filter cigarettes have small holes in the middle of the filter. These holes are largely closed by fingers and lips of smokers. But the measurement method does not take into account these small holes through which the smoking machines draws in clean air and dilutes the quantity of harmful substances.

Research from the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, an independent agency of the Dutch ministry of Health, showed that when these holes are blocked, the amount of tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide of all filter cigarettes are 2 to 20 times higher than limit values allowed in Dutch laws.

The NVWA had argued it could not take any actions because it was bound to the measurement method. The method is indeed prescribed by the European Commission.

The district Court of Rotterdam earlier referred the case to the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg. Last February, it acknowledged the method used by machines was valid but not transparent and unfair to the smokers. As such, it directed the Rotterdam Court that Dutch authorities should make sure the public knows exactly how harmful substances is measured.

The method used in the European Union is ISO-certified but the World Health Organization has another method, called the “intensive method” during which the ventilation holes are closed. Tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide is more intensely more deeply inhaled with each puff. The largest differences are shown in the so-called light cigarettes, which have a lot of filter ventilation.

The Court of Rotterdam acknowledges the measurement method is prescribed by the European Commission and doesn’t have jurisdiction on it. But until the method is changed, “it cannot be guaranteed that the filter cigarettes sold in the Netherlands comply with the limit values for tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide.”

As a consequence, to pursue the objectives of the limit values regarding public health protection, the Court considers that the sale of filter cigarettes is in violation of the Tobacco Directive, which “means that the NVWA must take enforcement action against the sale of filter cigarettes.” Exact action to comply with the ruling is not clear yet, as it is up to the NVWA determine how it will be implemented. It can also appeal the decision.

The issue was not new but it is the first judicial decision of the kind in the country and could make way for other countries to emulate the decision. This Dutch regulation is actually a transfer of the Tobacco Products Directive from the European Commission, which lays down rules governing the manufacture, presentation and sale of tobacco and related products.

VSK, the trade association of tobacco manufacturers, doesn’t expect anything to change in the short term. “The cigarettes sold in the Netherlands are the same as the cigarettes sold throughout Europe, according to European guidelines,” said the director Jan Hein Sträter to NOS.

Led by the Youth Smoking Prevention foundation, the lawsuit against what it calls “rigged cigarettes” was filed by 15 organizations, including the municipality of Amsterdam. In 2018, the association asked the NVWA to remove filter cigarettes from sale, which it had refused. Wanda de Kanter, pulmonologist and  chairman of Youth Smoking Prevention, declared in a statement that “the tobacco industry has been able to make and keep people addicted for years, but this ruling makes it clear that this practice cannot last. The NVWA must immediately remove all cigarettes from the shelves.”

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