The following is a partial transcript of a telephone interview of Wiel Maessen, the President of Forces Netherlands and President of Forces International, by Stanton Glantz and an assistant earlier this year. If necessary, I’ll edit this post to make corrections. I’ll comment on it later.
Ass: We wanted to get your perspective on the smoking laws in the Netherlands.
WM: First of all you should know something about my background. I have a background of science and statistics, so I am able to interpret any science that comes out on the subject. One of the main things that happened here in Holland was that we effectively broke the information monopoly by the anti-tobacco lobby, not only for the media but also in politics. Until 2007 – 2008 the only information the media and politics got was from the anti-tobacco lobby, and I think we effectively managed to break that so that the other side became known, and also the criticism of the information from the anti-tobacco lobby became known to the media, to the public, and to the politicians. That was one of the major things that happened there, I think.
SG: So – this is Stanton Glantz – we’d like to get your perspective on the history of the issue as it evolved, particularly the smoking law which has been under debate for the last few years in Holland.
WM: Well, first of all, that smoking law was set up very shoddily, and it was vulnerable to law suits. It was very badly written, and it gave our lawyers all possibilities to fight it. And our judge’s verdict was that we are right in many cases. So that was one of the main things. The opposition already started in 2007 when three smokers’ rights organisations started an action against the smoking ban which was planned to go into effect in 2008. We campaigned, collected 100,000 signatures against the smoking ban, and that was achieved by doing some quite interesting things like a ship going all through Holland visiting cities, city centres, bars, sent in petition lists, gave them to the bar owners, asked them to get them signed by their customers, and that brought up those 100,000 signatures, which is pretty much for Dutch circumstances. The signatures were real signatures, so there were no digitally collected ones, and it generated a carpet with the size of 300 square metres of signatures. All the paper rolled out in the parliamentary buildings was a great view for the press, and they made pictures of it, and it was very impressive. So that’s one of the things. It all originated in smokers’ rights organisations, not at the bar owners themselves. The bar owners themselves were joining later when the same smokers’ rights organisations started a website and started to collect bar owners and ask them to pay 250 euros per year to help us fight it in a legal sense in a political way.
SG: Can you give us any idea how many bar owners made that requested contribution?
WM: Some 1200 out of 5000 concerned.
SG: Was that the major source of financing for the litigation?
WM: Yes. I paid a bit out of my own pocket. In fact, I paid for the advertising campaign myself. I’m a millionaire, you know, so I can do that.
SG: Are you really a millionaire, or are you just..?
WM: I’m a multimillionaire.
Ass: OK, I’m going to stop the recording… [pause]
SG: So you mentioned that there were several smokers’ rights groups formed a few years ago.
WM: Well, mine started already 11 years ago, so I am on the file already for 11 years. I know everything about it.
SG: Can you tell us a little about the history of the other ones, when they were formed, who formed them, how and why?
Ass: Just to make clear, yours is Forces. That’s the one when you’re talking about ‘mine’.
WM: That’s right. I’m president of Forces Netherlands. And now also president of Forces International. And the other one is out of the old SmokePeace group, which was a pan-European group set up by the tobacco industry. But money that went in there has nothing to do with our fight, because it was quite another organisation. And the third one was a political party called Party Against the Nanny State, and that’s pretty unoperational at the moment.
SG: And when was that created, and who created it?
WM: That was 5 years ago or something. It was a grass roots organisation like Forces is too.
Ass: Was it a European level one or a country level political party?
WM: A country level one.
Ass: Were these in coalition with KHO?
WM: Well, not really a coalition. They just supplied the people who did the organisation of it all, and there were also some independents involved.
SG: Can you explain a bit more. I don’t understand.
WM: Yes. What don’t you understand?
SG: Just how the organisations were formed and how they related to each other.
WM: They knew each other for quite some time, because of course on the internet there are many contacts. There is a very large network of smokers who are fighting smoking bans, and that is not only nationally but also internationally. So you see many people coming back on the internet on several places, and there you organise yourself, and set up the organisations. At this moment our actions are already having effect in the rest of Europe because we are now really connected to organisations in the UK, in the Middle East, in Belgium, in France, in Germany. It’s one big network, and it’s gaining strength every day.
SG: You mentioned in terms of the lawsuits that you prevailed in some of them. But my understanding is that ultimately you lost at the supreme court. Is that correct?
WM: Yes, but the lawsuits did not end yet. Because there are two waiting in the queue for the final verdicts. One is on the criminal law side, and the other in the administrative law side. One is about the competition aspects of smoking bans. The other is a verdict on ventilation as a solution.
SG: And how are those different from the the cases the supreme court has already ruled on?
[Discussion of lawsuits].
SG: And then there was an article, an exposé, was that the name of it?
WM: That was an obscure article. One that was not really correct. The title above the article didn’t cover the contents of the article. They had only proven that one of those smokers rights organisations, that they received money from the tobacco industry, but they concluded in the title that the bar owners organisations were the ones that received the money, but that was not true. There never went any cent to the bar owners. They all paid themselves, or I did.
SG: If you leave aside the headline, which is often written by someone different from the one who wrote the article. If you look at the substance of the article itself were there any errors in that, or was the reporting in the article accurate as far as it went?
WM: I don’t remember that there was anything that was not true…
[discussion of article]
WM: I’ve worked on the article. I also received the journalist talking with me. And what I discovered was that they really were trying to prove that the tobacco industry was behind this opposition, and that’s the tactic I now see that you are trying to achieve.
SG: No. No. The comments you made were critical of the headline. And I’ve certainly seen lots of headlines which didn’t quite fit with the article they were headlining. The thing we’re interested in … is there anything in the article itself that you think was inaccurate ..?
WM: I don’t remember that there was anything in the real article that was not right. But there was no news in it…
[Discussion of relationships between organisations]
Ass: The minister of health has recently granted an exemption for bars 70 metres squared and under that are owner or family-run. Has Save The Small Bars been involved in lobbying for that exemptions?
WM: Of course. I already said that our fight was both on the legal side and on the political side. We are happy that after the last elections there is a real classical liberal government right now which is very ideologically based and says that people have the right to run their business as they think they should do it. So we have a majority in parliament right now. We are not even happy with the current exemption. We want more and will be fighting further on that. So nationally and internationally we are very busy on that. I have all my time for myself, don’t work any more, so I haven’t really pushed at all.
SG: Do you have anything more you’d want to say about the current government or the current health minister. Have you had any direct relations with the current government or the current health minister?
WM: I spoke with her one or two times in the past 7 years, and I know she already proposed, in 2004 or 2005, that there should be an exemption for the small bars, because it’s quite different how bars act in Holland compared with the US. Here they are culturally very important. They are like livingrooms of neighbourhoods where people meet, where lonesome people meet and find partners. And that’s a very important social role of these bars, and especially the mom-and-pop bars. So these smoking bans cause a lot of damage on the social side, and on the emotional side, and on the psychological side, and on the financial side. And that’s what was never really balanced with the public health gains that were said to be gained by it, like for instance those heart attacks that would suddenly stop. That’s really laughable. And we now could show politicians after the RAND report that was brought out last month that these studies were really fake, and not real science. And even the Dutch EPA lost credibility now. So we can show them now that there is another side to the public health propaganda, and that’s very important.
SG: Do you have anything you want to tell us about the former Health Minister, Klink?
WM: He was not really someone who was very good on the topic itself. He was I believe a financial expert. So he really was pushed by his civil servants. But this [new] health minister is very good on the file, she knows everything on it, so she won’t be influenced by the civil servants that in their own respect are influenced by the anti-tobacco lobby very much, and go to international conferences that are sponsored by Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, and so they are under the influence of the pharmaceutical industry, and that’s what we have explained to the politicians as well. So the credibility of public health is getting at stake right now.
Ass: Can you spell the name of the organisation which came out with the report you mentioned?
WM: RAND corporation. A pan-US study on the effects of smoking bans on admissions for AMIs, and they really had control groups that knocked down all those studies that were done by your boss, Mr Glantz, and his followers. And this really shows that there is totally no effect. And the RIVM (the Dutch EPA) had on the request of the former minister also looked at all those studies because we had told that to the politicians that these were faked. We gave them all the criticisms of Michael Siegel, and even the RIVM showed up to not be independent, especially because the main guy who is responsible for those reports on Tobacco Control is a member of the WHO’s top rank, and so he’s not really independent, and that’s clear now for politics as well….
Ass: When I went to the Save the Small Bars website it looked like … it was asking small bars to submit claims regarding economic loss.
WM: That’s a second foundation that’s set up, and I’m also on the board of that. That when the two high court law suits are verdicted in our favour then we call all bar owners to submit their losses that they got through the smoking ban and sue the government to pay them money for that.
SG: And what is the status of that?
WM: We are waiting for the last verdicts, and then we can proceed.
SG: That’s everything we could think of. Is there anything else that you think we should have asked you but we didn’t?
WM: No. Just know that the opposition is really growing fast quickly right now in Europe and that I’m on the board of another organisation called the International Coalition against Prohibition which is an umbrella organisation that is now organising all those smaller organisations worldwide from Hawaii to Canada, US, Europe, Middle East, and we’re together now making a fist and there will be a next conference – a third one – organised this year where all forces will be joined.
SG: OK. Well thank you for your time and we appreciate you talking to us.