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When health advice should trump culture

In the UK slow but steady progress on advice to smokers has led to one of the greatest reductions in smoking of any industrialised nation. According to the Guardian newspaper, Just 16.9% of adults in England now smoke, according to the latest data from Public Health England.

This battle between what some people would regard as a ‘cultural right to smoke’ verses sound health advice pitches the tobacco companies against the health authorities in the UK. And it seems that the health advice is winning.

It does help that the UK’s authorities are mostly supportive of the advice, but when it comes to health advice in the Faroes it seems that the health advice of the government’s own colleagues when it comes to the consumption of toxic whale meat is fundamentally opposed by those who have a stake in keeping the whaling culture alive.

As reported by Deutsche Welle, Kate Sanderson, originally an Australian, who now heads the Mission of the Faroe Islands to the EU, argues against Faroese Government action and says that ‘eating pilot whale is an individual choice and not something that the Faroese government would want to ban’. 

Dr Pal Weihe is the Chief Physician at the Department of Occupational Medicine and Public Health in the Faroese Hospital System, and since 1984 he has been researching and testing the effects of eating pilot whale meat with over 2,300 Faroese children and their mothers.

As noted by Deutsche Welle in this recent report, and previously by WDC and other campaigning organisations, ‘investigations led Weihe and his colleagues to discover that contaminants in pilot whale meat and blubber appeared to increase the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease, hypertension, arteriosclerosis, and even cognitive deficiencies in children with prenatal exposure to methylmercury.’

“The medical profession in the Faroes is recommending not to eat [pilot whale meat] at all,” he said to DW.

In June 2013 when WDC visited the islands Dr Weihe stated to WDC´s programme manager, Astrid Fuchs,

“It would be a crime not to tell people that they are exposed to high levels of toxic substances. Decision makers around the Arctic Circle are more concerned in preserving the cultural heritage than people’s health; people need to be told that. Why should the Arctic people be preserved in their ways just for the sake of it? They should have the choice to be healthy”

Sanderson, who is married to an eminent Faroese writer, first made a name for herself in the Faroes through a series of anthropological studies on life in the Faroes, specifically the role of the grind in Faroese life. She then went on be the NAMMCO secretariat and to represent the Faroese Government in a number of roles but has always been an ardent defender of whaling as an integral part of the culture of the islands.

But how long can culture trump the increasingly concerning health advice? For a country that is rich in other aspects of its culture, maybe it’s time for the Faroese Government to start listening to its own specialists, rather than defining itself solely by one aspect of its previous ‘culture’; its now increasingly dangerous whaling?