Saturday May 11, 2019
By Palko Karasz
Sylvi Listhaug, a right-winger, was put in charge of public health after previously resigning as justice minister over comments she made about terrorism.CreditCreditStian Lysberg Solum/Scanpix, via Reuters
It was a most unusual message from a health official: People should be allowed to eat, drink and smoke as they see fit.
Norway’s new minister in charge of public health said this week that adults did not need government lectures about what to put in their bodies, but it sounded a bit like she was telling people to go ahead and indulge. Critics protested that her remarks were damaging, particularly coming from someone in her position.
“I think people should be allowed to smoke, drink and eat as much red meat as they like,” Sylvi Listhaug, the government’s minister for the elderly and public health, said in an interview posted on Monday on the website of NRK, Norway’s state broadcaster. “The government may provide information, but I think people in general know what is healthy and what is not.”
The interview was published just three days after she took over the ministry, and it was dotted with the kind of sharp, controversial comments Ms. Listhaug, deputy leader of the right-wing, anti-immigration Progress Party, is known for.
As immigration minister, she made headlines in 2017 with disparaging comments about Sweden, saying that Norway should not become like its neighbor, which was accepting more refugees. Last year, she resigned as justice minister after comments about terrorists she made on Facebook threatened to bring down the government.
This week, opposition politicians and health advocates promptly denounced Ms. Listhaug’s comments on habits that are major risk factors for many serious diseases.
“I fear that this will set public health efforts back for decades, and that this will compromise the general understanding among Norwegians of the health consequences of tobacco and alcohol use,” Anne Lise Ryel, secretary general of Norway’s Cancer Society, said in a statement.
She called for public health to be removed from Ms. Listhaug’s portfolio, saying that “she seems to lack understanding of what public health really means and what her role as minister in that area should be.”
In a statement of her own, emailed on Friday, Ms. Listhaug said, “The government believes that people have to take responsibility for their own life, but the government has to make sure that everyone can make healthy and informed choices.”
“The number of daily smokers has declined sharply since 2000,” Ms. Listhaug said. “This confirms that the Norwegian tobacco policy and control strategy works.” She appeared to be endorsing the kind of stop-smoking campaigns she disparaged earlier in the week.
According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, in 2017, 11 percent of Norwegians aged 15 or older smoked daily, one of the lowest rates among the group’s 34 member nations. Norway has also had the steepest decrease of any of the countries since 2000, when the equivalent figure was 32 percent.
The Progress Party has been a junior partner in Norway’s center-right governing coalition since 2013. Its rise to prominence created unease, coming just two years after a far-right, anti-Muslim extremist who had once belonged to the party killed 77 people in a murderous rampage.
Governments around the world have stepped up campaigns to fight unhealthy habits. France recently told people not to drink every day; a soda tax in Britain has helped lower sugar levels in some drinks, and Australia’s graphic warnings on cigarette packages, considered a success, are being copied in other countries.
While there has been opposition to some of the measures, it has rarely come from public health officials.
Ms. Listhaug said that people who smoked felt like “pariahs” in Norway, and that she would not be the “moral police” in government. She echoed comments made by Austria’s far right, defending freedom of choice in opposing antismoking legislation.
The Freedom Party is part of the governing coalition in Austria, and its leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, the vice chancellor and minister for sport, is an avid smoker. The party last year blocked rules that would have banned smoking in restaurants, as it commonly is elsewhere in the European Union.
Ms. Listhaug, a former regular smoker who told NRK that now she lights up only occasionally, said she opposed tightening Norway’s antismoking laws, as some groups have proposed, to ban smoking at bus stops, for example.
“Where do we send these smokers in the end?” she asked. “Are they going to have to go into the woods or up on a mountaintop or down to the docks in order just to take a drag?”
Henrik Pryser contributed reporting.