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The not-so-undercover employee activist vs. the tobacco industry

“You don’t want to be my mother.” This is what Wanda de Kanter’s daughter said to her after she caught Wanda sneaking a cigarette in the middle of the night.

At the age of 47, Wanda – a lung specialist – quit smoking. She is now an activist, railing against the powerful tobacco industry and its army of lobbyists.

From knowledge to activism

Wanda could’ve quit smoking and just left it at that. But, she decided to use her voice and expertise as a practicing physician to speak out against the tobacco industry.

“When I had to stop smoking, I didn’t want to stop,” she says. “Why is it so difficult? Most people don’t really know what addiction is or how it works in the brain. So, I thought it was very interesting to analyze.”

For Wanda and fellow pulmonologist Pauline Dekker, 80% of their daily practice consists of caring for patients with COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) or lung cancer – diseases that cannot be cured but can be prevented in over 85% of cases.

After grappling with these issues in their daily work and learning more about addiction and the cunning efforts of tobacco lobbyists, Wanda decided enough was enough. “For me, it was insight after insight,” Wanda explains. “In the end, I thought, ‘Well, now we have to stop this.’"

Kicking into action

In their first effort to open people’s eyes to the dangers of smoking – and the tobacco industry at large – Wanda and Pauline published the book, Nederland stopt! Met Roken (in English: The Netherlands Stops! Smoking). In 2009, they then founded Youth Smoking Prevention, a foundation whose objective is to “banish tobacco from society and make smoking history.” A series of initiatives followed, such as Sick of Smoking (an online petition), and TabakNee (in English: TobaccoNo, an investigative journalism site exposing the activities of tobacco lobbyists in the Netherlands).

In 2016, the Youth Smoking Prevention Foundation also launched the first criminal case against the tobacco industry in the world! While they ended up losing the case, it launched a huge social movement in the country.

A huge part of Wanda’s strategy is “naming and shaming” – exposing influential business leaders and politicians who are associated with the tobacco industry. In one instance, an investigative journalist for TabakNee found that a key leader of Dutch cosmetics company Rituals sits on the board of multinational tobacco company Philip Morris. Wanda also mentions several ex-ministers in the Netherlands who later worked with Philip Morris.

While Wanda is currently pursuing other lawsuits against the tobacco industry – with the rise of e-cigarettes and vaporizers bringing a whole new set of challenges and dangers – working with the media remains key in her activism efforts.

Looking to the future: A tipping point

Wanda admits that it can feel impossible trying to drive real, long-lasting change.

“At the end of the day, every time, I’m standing in the room with my patient telling him he has stage four lung cancer,” she tells us. “This is never-ending. I see it as a sort of Greek tragedy. It’s contagious from family to family – transgenerational – and it’s not stopping because of this politics. We are very much being influenced by the tobacco industry with billions and billions of dollars.”

However, she remains hopeful and believes we are at a tipping point, especially as the Dutch government considers increasing the price of a pack of cigarettes.

“We have a very good, big network in the Netherlands and internationally, so we know what’s happening,” Wanda says. “We don’t have an enormous amount of money – that’s an understatement – but I think we will win. At the moment, we have a petition for a smoke-free generation by law on Sick of Smoking. We will adjust it to a nicotine-free generation soon. We follow other countries in this very promising endgame, like New Zealand, Australia, Denmark, and Malaysia.”

Changing the system: Lessons from an activist

When it comes to changing the system, Wanda has some learnings and tips for fellow activists:

  1. Understand that it takes time – a really, really long time. “If you want to change big, complex systems, you really have to take time. You have to zoom out because most people zoom in,” Wanda urges.

  2. Build your knowledge on the topic at hand. As Wanda puts it, “You have to know a lot. You always have to be right. If even one time I had said something wrong, I would’ve been perceived as worse than the tobacco industry.”

  3. Focus, focus, focus. “You cannot pay someone to do the work,” Wanda states. “You really have to be passionate about it and know that you are on the right side.”

  4. Build your network, especially with the media. “You have to have a big role with media,” Wanda says. “If you don’t have money, you have to be smart. From the beginning when we all started, we really had to push our network and now I know most journalists. If I have something, I can call them.”

One of Wanda’s challenges was being called an “activist” in the first place. “When I stopped smoking, I never planned to become an activist. I was writing a book and that was it,” she reveals.

“The first person to call me an ‘activist’ was a big challenge. I saw myself as a good medical specialist who was doing the right thing.”

Today, Wanda is more comfortable identifying as an activist. She leaves some final words of advice for fellow activists: “Build your knowledge, network, expect to be in it for the long run, learn about influencing and how to utilize the media, and learn as much as you can in general! Also, there’s no room for ego.”

Follow Wanda’s journey and join the fight against the tobacco industry (mostly in Dutch): Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, Website.

Author: Sophie Poulsen. Working student and freelance copywriter. Writes her own newsletter called 'The After Party' and talks about #culture, #identity, #worklife, #internalcommunications, and #diversityequityinclusion


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