Page last updated at 16:13 GMT, Friday, 15 January 2010

Finland aims to stub out smoking habit

By Paul Henley
BBC News, Helsinki

Finland's government is planning some of the world's toughest measures to stop people smoking.

Ilkka Oksala, state secretary in the health ministry, drew up the latest plans and his approach is uncompromising.

"The goal is to get rid of smoking once and for all. It is a long-term goal, but still we are going to achieve it.

People in Finland react to the government's anti-smoking move

"Of course, this would mean the end of the tobacco industry if all the countries in the world took the same kind of steps as we are.

"We have had negotiations with that industry, naturally, but to be quite honest, our goal is against their business. At the moment, it is legal to manufacture tobacco here, but we will make many changes to help people stop smoking."

It was as early as 1976 that the Finnish parliament first outlawed tobacco advertising.

Soon it will most likely be illegal for tobacco even to be visible in shops.

The ruling party has a clear majority in today's parliament and there is little opposition to their anti-smoking bill among other parties. So this and a ban on smoking in private cars carrying anyone under 18 will almost certainly be law by the summer.

Get them young

Only about 20% of Finns smoke, but Mr Oksala has a ready list of reasons for the rules to be tightened.

"When people start smoking, they are usually very young - not adult enough to make their own decisions, usually between 12 and 15 years old," he says.

Ilkka Oksala, state secretary in the health ministry
The whole of society pays to treat the diseases smokers will later develop
Ilkka Oksala
State secretary in health ministry

"The whole of society pays to treat the diseases they will later develop. In the future, we will have better uses for these euros than to help people with these kinds of diseases."

Smoking is also a class issue in Finland, he says.

"It is helping to cause inequality. Upper middle-class and middle-class people here hardly smoke at all nowadays.

"Previously, all income groups tended to smoke at the same level. Now it is much more the unemployed and people with low incomes who suffer the health problems of smoking."

Like many who have researched the links between smoking and fatal diseases, Matti Rautalahti, chief medical officer for the Finnish Cancer Society, is constantly surprised by the public's inability to apply the science to themselves.

"People officially seem to know that smoking kills," he says, "but they don't necessarily think it's a matter that concerns them".

This is despite overwhelming evidence that as many as half of regular smokers will eventually be killed by their habit.

"Initially, when we heard about the government's plan, we were both surprised and pleased," says Mr Rautalahti.

"Up until now, no other governments have taken such an initiative. We surely hope that this will be the blueprint for other countries. Previously, Finland has shown an example on decreasing smoking rates and we hope this is another."

Industry opposition

The tobacco industry must surely hope not.

Anne Edwards, director external communications, Philip Morris
Tobacco products are certainly harmful, but I don't think that simply hiding them is going to solve any of the problems
Anne Edwards
Philip Morris International

Anne Edwards is director of external communications for Philip Morris International. Her company lodged an official complaint against the Finnish government's plans.

"I think you can have measures in place that reduce smoking, but that, at the same time, recognise that there is a legitimate industry out there that supports regulation but does not want to be so penalised that, at the end of the day, it can't operate any more," she says.

The Finnish government previously failed to disclose its intention to end all tobacco use in Finland eventually, she says.

"We think that, if you are going to have a far-reaching discussion about tobacco policy, then it's only fair to disclose the objectives while you have a public consultation.

"Tobacco products are certainly harmful, but I don't think that simply hiding them [beneath shop counters] is going to solve any of the problems that society has with them.

Regulation problem?

"I understand that one of the objectives in Finland is to try to prevent children from smoking, which of course is a completely valid goal," she continues.

"But if you look at some of the statistics to do with smoking here in Finland, about a million tobacco products are sold to teenagers in shops every year.

"If you contrast that [with the fact that] there have only been two fines handed out to retailers for selling to kids in the last 30 years, it seems to me that the problem lies elsewhere."

Ms Edwards argues that if regulation becomes excessive the black marketeers will get the upper hand.

"One of the discussion points raised by the Finnish government is also to ban any new tobacco products from entering the market in the future," she says.

"Say one day you have a product that is less harmful - that product would then not be made available to adult consumers in Finland."

The government in Helsinki is expected to respond this month to the complaint lodged by Philip Morris International.

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