MANAGUA – Lawmaker Luis Callejas returned from vacation last week to find that the congressional cafeteria at the National Assembly had implemented a new “no smoking” section for legislators who think cigarette smoke is even less appetizing than cafeteria gruel.
But what’s most interesting about the cafeteria’s decision is not that lawmakers can now enjoy Salisbury steak in a relatively smoke-free environment, but rather that it took the National Assembly 13 years to implement its own Law to Protect the Human Rights of Non-Smokers, passed in 1996.
Indeed, not unlike a chain smoker, Nicaragua’s legislation regulating smoking is “missing a full set of teeth,” Callejas said.
Nicaragua‘s existing anti-smoking legislation calls for smoking bans in public areas and for non-smoking designations in restaurants and other establishments. Though the law has only been half-heartedly implemented over the past decade, lawmakers are now seeking to pass an even more ambitious anti-smoking law – one, Callejas says, that would give Nicaragua the most progressive anti-smoking legislation in all of Latin America.
But don’t hold your breath (especially not you, smokers), because the bill is stuck in the lung tissue of the National Assembly, and may not be exhaled anytime soon. The “Law to Control Tobacco,” which calls for a series of tougher restrictions on the sale and consumption of tobacco products has been clogged in the National Assembly’s Health Commission for more than a year, and shows no signs of being passed to the legislative floor of vote anytime soon.
When it’s eventually passed, smokers will be the first to notice. Promotional pictures of cowboys and bikini-clad beachgoers adorning their cigarette packs will be replaced by grotesque pictures of black lung or other graphic reminders of why it’s a good idea to quit smoking.
“Seventy percent of the cigarette box will be covered in anti-smoking propaganda, the rest will be the brand name of the cigarette,” Callejas said.
Though the new smoking law will not implement a “total smoking ban,” as some anti-smoking legislation seeks to do, it will increase regulations in attempts to “reduce the consumption of tobacco” and promote a more “healthy life in Nicaragua.”
That’s a good idea for many reasons, U.S. Surgeon General Steven Galson told The Nica Times this week in an exclusive interview in Managua.
“The tobacco control movement, which is international at this point, has literally saved millions of lives around the world,” Galson said. “In addition to preventing cases of lung cancer, it’s also helped prevent emphysema, heart disease and all the other health consequences of smoking.”
Galson, who was in Nicaragua this week to visit the U.S. Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort, anchored here on a humanitarian mission off the Pacific port of Corinto as part of its “Continuing Promises 2009 tour,” said passing and implementing smoking bans can be a politically tricky challenge that “doesn’t happen overnight.” But, he stressed, it’s a proven way to save lives, reduce tobacco consumption and save enormous sums of the health-care system.
The first smoking bans in the United States were implemented more than 30 years ago. Now, there are bans of one type or another in every state in the United States, with some “a lot more advanced” than others, Galson said.
In Latin America, the trend of implementing smoking bans in public areas started in the 1990s. Since then, an increasing number of developing countries have implemented other various types of bans, which are encouraged by the World TradeOrganization (WTO) and the U.N.
In the United States, the smoking bans, warnings and anti-smoking campaigns are making a difference. The percentage of the population who smokes in the United States recently dropped below 20 percent for the first time since the 1960s, according to a 2008 report by the U.S. Center for Disease Control.
In Nicaragua, the percentage of smokers is even “less than that of the United States,” or around 17 percent, according to congressman Callejas, who is also a doctor.
Yet despite the decreasing rate of smokers, the war is not won, especially among teenagers Galson said.
Asked if smoking is still sexy, Galson said with a laugh “Not to me! But every day that new smokers are starting means that it’s sexy in some manner of speaking.”
The U.S. government of President Barack Obama recently signed new tobacco-control legislation to give the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) new authority to regulate tobacco products in the United States.
That means that within the next year, cigarette companies will have to provide new labeling to list all ingredients and additives and carry new larger warning labels on cigarette packs.
“Right now it’s the tiny little surgeon general’s warning,” Galson said. But with the new law, “we can put photographs and take up a much larger portion of the pack, like you see in Canada, Australia and lots of Western European nations that have much stronger warnings than we do at this point.”
Nicaragua does not produce any cigarettes and imports most of its popular brands from Honduras. So after passing the new tobacco-control law, the Nicaraguan government will require foreign companies to change the packaging on all cigarettes made for export to Nicaragua, Callejas explained.
But right now, the political battle in Nicaragua is not between the government and consumers or private business, rather between the government and itself, Callejas said. The opposition lawmaker, a member of the Sandinista Renovation Movement, lamented that there is not enough political will among the other parties right now to pass the bill, and he says he can’t do it alone.
The Nica Times tried to contact the National Assembly’s Health Commission this week to consult about the bill, but didn’t receive a response.
Galson said there is “always backlash” when it comes to trying to implement tobacco-control legislation.
“It’s a political challenge and it’s a different political challenge in every single country and city,” he said.
But overall, Galson said, it’s working, and doing so against the odds.
“I would have never guessed that France would succeed in banning smoking in eating establishments and bars. But they did,”
Galson said. “They realized that it is taking a toll on health and health-care costs. And tourists don’t like it; they are used to the U.S. or Sweden where there is no smoking in eating establishments, and then they would go into (a French restaurant) and couldn’t breathe.” Galson said there is “no magic bullet” against smoking, but change is occuring.
“I think this is going to happen in the developing countries as well, they’re just a little bit behind,” he said.