2nd March 2018

The Dutch lung cancer patient battling the tobacco giants says her fight isn’t over yet

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We all know the Bible story of David versus Goliath, how the little shepherd boy brought down the fearsome giant soldier, using only his slingshot – and raw courage.

Well, one fearless lung cancer patient, Anne Marie van Veen, has taken on a similar fight against the most daunting odds.

Anne Marie van Veen, a lung cancer patient from the Netherlands is taking on the tobacco companies

The story began in 2016, when Anne Marie and an Amsterdam lawyer, Bénédicte Ficq, filed a criminal complaint accusing major tobacco companies of intentionally aiming to turn smokers into addicts and of causing “deliberate damage to public health”.

The complaint called for the tobacco firms Philip Morris International, British American Tobacco, Japan Tobacco International and Imperial Tobacco Benelux, to be charged with “attempted murder, alternatively attempted manslaughter and/or attempted and premeditated severe physical abuse and/or attempted and premeditated injuring of health”.

The action was backed by more than 20 different groups, including the Dutch family doctors’ association, the city of Amsterdam and the Netherlands’ main cancer hospital.

It also accused the companies of forgery, arguing that they had “for years declared on tobacco product packaging levels of tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide that were lower than the actual levels”.

A criminal prosecution of tobacco producers would have been a world first; however, though the case attracted worldwide news coverage, the Netherlands public prosecutors refused to open a formal criminal investigation.

The tobacco industry knew time and time again how to seduce me to keep me smoking. But I will not allow them to secure my children.

Anne Marie set up Sick of Smoking to challenge the tobacco companies

In a written statement, the prosecutors said that, within current Dutch legislation, they could see no prospect of a successful prosecution against tobacco companies.

They added that, while smoking is “deadly, and the design of cigarettes contributes to that, the tobacco producers do not … act in breach of the laws and rules”.

Anne Marie was diagnosed with lung cancer more than three and half years ago. Shortly afterwards, she was told that chemotherapy was no longer an option and that she had only had months to live; but, at the end of 2014, she accessed an immunotherapy drug trial.

At the same time as dealing with her illness, Anne Marie began her legal campaign against the tobacco companies.

She launched it in April 2016, when she appeared with lawyer Bénédicte Ficq on the Dutch television show, ‘RTL Late Night’. She came in for some stinging public criticism.

She had smoked, so, to many people, the very idea of trying to blame the tobacco manufacturers for her illness was ‘ridiculous’.

Far too often she was told,“It’s your own fault”.

“People ask the wrong question. The question is not: is it their own fault if someone who smokes gets lung cancer? No, the question is: is it their own fault if a child who starts smoking, later gets lung cancer? That sounds different, eh?”

Anne Marie van Veen, living with lung cancer

Said Anne Marie: “I haven’t used Facebook for a long time. I still get emails, saying things like: “You say you’re doing this for your children, but you smoked when you were pregnant. How could you?’ But I was addicted. And that addiction is not my fault. Many people don’t understand that.

That’s because those people ask the wrong question. The question is not: is it their own fault if someone who smokes gets lung cancer? No, the question is: is it their own fault if a child who starts smoking, later gets lung cancer? That sounds different, eh? Because that’s how it is: the vast majority of smokers start in their teenage years. Me too. I was 15. That’s what the tobacco industry wants.”

You are seduced as a child. So, is lung cancer still your own fault?”

Children are called “Replacement Smokers by the tobacco industry. They have to replace smokers who die prematurely.

A message from the Sick of Smoking website

Now, 18 months after she launched her campaign, she receives less of the mockery and criticism. Other people are starting to take action. The number of complaints against the tobacco industry now stands at 30. Almost all of the medical community in Netherlands has filed a complaint, as has the City of Amsterdam.

It was a brave step to take, but now Anne Marie finds herself at the head of an army.

She says, “It has not been for nothing. So much has happened. Soon, cigarettes will not be allowed to be on open display in shops (as is the case already here in the UK).

“We’ve already made history. And if justice does not proceed to prosecution, then … we will go to a higher court. This will continue.”

As you may know, Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation is a member of a world-wide alliance of patient-advocacy organisations – the Global Lung Cancer Coalition, or GLCC. This is the ‘voice’ of lung cancer patients on a world stage.

Our partner organisation, Lung Cancer Netherlands, has lent its support to the case brought by Anne Marie and her legal advisers.

Following the decision, Lung Cancer Netherlands released a statement, saying: “We are deeply disappointed that the Public Prosecution Service has decided against proceeding to criminal prosecution of the tobacco industry.

“It could prevent a lot of illness, suffering and social costs. We are extremely proud of Anne Marie van Veen, Lia Breed, Wanda de Kanter, Bénédicte Ficq and all other declarants. This case brought wider awareness of this matter. We have not yet given up. On to the court”.

The most recent statistics show that almost 25% of the population of the Netherlands smoke, while around 20,000 people die annually from smoking-related illnesses.

In the UK, the smoking rate among adults in now down to just under 16% – a record low since records began. That’s thanks – at least in part – to health awareness initiatives, better education, and the ban on smoking in public places for which our charity campaigned so hard.

Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation has always ‘been there’ to support people who want to quit smoking, while ‘Cut Films’, our anti-smoking film and creative media project, supports young people to make healthy lifestyle choices.

The brave patients who took part in our #HeadHigh campaign gave patients a voice to help us confront the stigma that surrounds lung cancer – the very prejudice that Anne Marie has faced down so fiercely.

The fight against lung cancer, its links to smoking and the prejudice that surrounds it, continues. In the Netherlands, in the UK and across the globe. Like Anne Marie, we won’t give up.