Violations of the advertisement ban by tobacco manufacturers are seldom noticed by inspection authorities. That is the conclusion of The Investigative Desk after analysing ten years of inspections carried out by the Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (Nederlandse Voedsel- en Warenautoriteit, NVWA). The agency also regularly loses out in their juridical test of strength with the industry, which enables the latter to soften or delay financial penalties.
The NVWA only spends two per cent of its means and manpower on tobacco oversight, much less compared to the other domains the agency watches over, such as food safety and animal welfare. This limited oversight is mainly aimed and maintaining the smoking ban and doing age checks. The ban on tobacco advertising, the preeminent vehicle by which the industry binds new costumers, has the lowest priority.
Every year, the NVWA only inspects less than 0.5 per cent of the points of sale regarding the advertising ban. Meanwhile, stealth marketing of cigarettes at student sororities, festivals, tobacco shops, and webshops via influencers and supermarkets went on for years without inspectors catching wind of them. The NVWA only intervened after media reported on these marketing channels. The low degree of oversight did nothing to scare off the industry. Instead, manufacturers simply paid the fines and immediately made new marketing deals.
As a result, during the close to 20 years that the marketing of tobacco products has been banned, offenders hardly ever had to pay the highest amount of €450,000 for a single offence. The sporadic fines did not lead to a reduction in illegal advertising. Moreover, fines were regularly halved or remitted altogether. Camel and Winston manufacturer Japan Tobacco International, for example, automatically sees all its fines halved as, though being a multinational with a yearly revenue of billions of euros, they employ fewer than 80 people in the Netherlands and are therefore juridically a medium to small business.
NVWA’s policy is predominantly directed by the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sports and the ministry has been directly involved for years. As a result, the watchdog has not been able to deter the industry. The findings of The Investigative Desk caused State Secretary Paul Blokhuis to argue for extra means and manpower at the next meeting of the Council of Ministers this spring.
The complete findings of this research were published in two parts in the Dutch monthly magazine Vrij Nederland.
This research was conducted partially with financial aid of the Longfonds, KWF Kankerbestrijding, the Hartstichting, the Diabetesfonds and the Trombosestichting.