I live in Amsterdam. For the geographically challenged — or for those who have spent too much time in an American high school — Amsterdam is in Holland. Holland is also called The Netherlands. This literally means “Low Lands”, which is why in French it is called the Pays Bays.
Low is the word to keep in mind when thinking of this land. There is a free market on sex. Drugs, some soft, and some bordering on hard (i.e., certain mushrooms) are tolerated, de facto legal really. Salaries are stifled (i.e., kept low) by an paternalistic tax regime. And the general culture here is currently competing with American popular culture to see which can slouch further and faster towards Gomorrah (in Robert Bork’s coinage).
Morality may be a least common denominator approach, live and let die may be the M.O. in all but aid for Africa, and the streets may look like a cross between Istanbul and Bunyan’s ‘Vanity Fair.’ But one thing is for certain, we are sure that we are healthier than ever.
And once we rid this place of smoking, we will be really healthier than ever.
Thus, instead of tackling problems that make Holland a burdensome place to live for a person of moderate Christian faith — or even a person of the general moral sentiments that Paul tells us are written on the heart — the Dutch have decided to ban smoking in restaurants, cafes, and hotels.
In July 2008 the whole Horeca (the collective name for Hotel-Restaurant-Café) will become smoke free. Those little uncivilized animals, smokers, if they still insist on smoking publicly, will be quarantined in a smoking room where no other services are allowed. Coffeeshops are the only stores not affected. Oh yes, I forgot, a coffeeshop here deals in marijuana, a cafe sells coffee. All this for workplace health and safety.
Let it be said that cigarette smoking kills 30 percent of lifetime smokers, be it through emphysema or lung cancer or heart problems. However, the Dutch government’s coming ban on smoking is not about smokers, it is about “passive smokers” who used to be called “second-hand smokers” who used to be called “non-smokers.” Ostensibly, the law is for the protection of this group in the workplace, that is oppressed by the acrid odor and carcinogens of smoke and thus endangered. From the rhetoric of the Dutch anti-smoking lobby, you would think there is now a shortage of Horeca workers because workplace smoke is offing them.
Perhaps there is some risk. Living with others is always negotiated risk; humans are dirty, dangerous animals. And part of our samen leven, our ‘life together’ is accepting some of that risk. But we must know whether there is an actual, serious risk or only a presumed risk. We do not want ideology packaged as science.
Those championing this ban assume that the science is settled and that what we now need is decisive action. It is not that simple, and the evidence is not as monolithic as the politicians (for example, do a careful read of the American Lung Association’s Second Hand Smoke Fact Sheet and its sources). Nevertheless, to paraphrase Belloc, let us never doubt what no one is sure about.
Instead, we must act. We must legislate.
That is the strong option, and a favorite of modern bureaucrats. But there used to be the soft option: culture. And some places still appeal to it. In sections of America, cultural changes in the perceptions of smoking have cleaned up the air in restaurants. Many Horeca now voluntarily forbid smoking. Most Americans believe that cigarette smoking is not something ons-sort does. There is an elitism that promotes health.
But as history shows, where culture fails government grows — or at least the laws increase. This is where we are in Holland. The worry is that through this we are legislating into existence a society that ostracizes the smoker but welcomes the junky — a society in which you are permitted to buy sex but not to smoke afterwards (as if in a brothel, smoking is the chief workplace health and safety issue!). Simply for the sake of irony, all Horeca in Holland should apply to become coffeeshops.