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A curious event took place recently in Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, a country that prides itself on its support for freedom of speech and information. The concept is apparently of little interest to the tobacco industry when it comes to telling Danish smokers just how many serious risks they are taking, though warmly embraced when the industry is fighting to retain ways of promoting cigarettes. So long as one is not too fussy about the integrity of the arguments involved, most aspects of tobacco control policy can be framed as an invasion of personal freedoms. It was with such reasoning, presumably, that Venstres Ungdom, the largest and oldest political youth movement in Denmark, with about 2000 members and eight members of parliament, recently held the event in question.
Venstre Ungdom, literally meaning “left youth”, is akin to a youth wing of Venstre, the political party of the prime minister and the largest political party in Denmark. Despite its left of centre origins, Venstre is now a right-of-centre party and currently governs in coalition with other conservative parties. Venstre Ungdom certainly struck a chord more familiar with conservative politics in seemingly supporting industry interests against tobacco control policy. The organisation arranged the “happening” in front of the Danish parliament, Christiansborg, during which its members offered all those passing by, politicians and the general public, free cigarettes or nicotine replacement therapy products. The intention, apparently, was to provide a platform for the political idea of “people being able to decide for themselves without any regulation from the government”, echoing perhaps the industry’s most familiar, if over-used, mantra.
When questioned later by a concerned doctor, the president of the party’s youth wing admitted that he knew that the voluntary agreement between the tobacco industry and government in Denmark prohibited the tobacco industry from distributing cigarettes free of charge, but he saw that as an image building exercise by the industry. He had no clear answer to the question as to why Venstre Ungdom did not have the same ambition for image building. And he may have been a little taken aback when his expression of a clearly negative attitude to “health extremists” met with the robust expression of an equal and opposite dislike by the doctor for “pushers in nice clothes”. He even seemed concerned about why the doctor was questioning him. But this, after all, was Denmark, land of freedom of information and expression.