San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Campaign pushes for national anti-smoking bill

Oversized cigarettes decorated with colorful posters line the walkway to the entrance of Hospital México in La Uruca, reminding patients that smoking kills.

The display is a message from the National Anti-Smoking Network of Costa Rica, or Renata, whose members are trying to rally support for an anti-smoking bill in debate at the Legislative Assembly.

Members of Renata, which helped draft the anti-smoking bill, include the Health Ministry, the Institute of Alcoholism and Drug Addiction (IAFA), the ICE Group (formed by the Costa Rican Electricity Institute, or ICE), the University of Costa Rica, the State University at a Distance, the Social Security System (Caja) and the Costa Rican Association of Medical Students.

The bill, titled “The Control of Tobacco and its Harmful Effects on Health,” was written in 2008. According to a survey conducted by Renata, 93 percent of surveyed Costa Ricans support the bill, 89 percent of respondents support the prohibition of advertising and sponsorship of tobacco companies, and 95 percent of respondents support prohibiting smoking in certain places.

In its current form, the bill calls for a prohibition of smoking in public places, regulation of advertising by tobacco companies, a tax hike that would drive the price of cigarettes up, and a publicity campaign to draw attention to the harmful effects of second-hand smoke, all measures adopted in other cities around the world.

It would also help bring Costa Rican into compliance with provisions of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, an international treaty that Costa Rica signed in 2008.

David Sancho, Renata’s project administrator, said during an interview at Hospital México this week that Costa Rica is obligated to create legislation because it ratified the treaty. “By signing [the treaty], you’re committing to update the law,” he said.

Renata’s giant cigarettes will next move to the Health Ministry, then on to different government and private buildings across San José. Renata also produced several radio spots for IQ Radio (93.9 FM) and the National Radio Chamber, and posted billboards at local bus stops.

While the bill is debated in a health sub-commission, Sancho believes it has a strong chance of eventually passing the full assembly, as more than 70 percent of lawmakers have expressed their approval. President Laura Chinchilla has also publicly backed it.

“Right now we’re depending on President [Chinchilla] to call up the bill,” he said. By calling it up, Chinchilla would speed up the process “because it becomes a priority.”

One issue that has been problematic is how to distributed revenue from a higher cigarette tax. Legislator Luis Antonio Aiza, of the National Liberation Party, told the daily La Nación in January that the Caja should receive 75 percent of cigarette tax revenues, not the Health Ministry, because of the health care costs associated with smoking.

Health Ministry officials, however, see things differently. Daniel Salas, director of health marketing at the Health Ministry, agrees that part, but not most of the revenue should go to the Caja. The Health Ministry would use the revenue to promote better health practices, he said.

“If we think that the majority of the money should be collected from cigarettes to take care of patients who are already ill, then we’re being very reactive. We can be a lot more proactive and think about how to invest that money in programs for the promotion of health and in preventive programs for people who haven’t even thought about smoking yet. That would be ideal,” Salas said.

By directing more of the funds towards the Health Ministry as well as IAFA, the anti-smoking initiative could direct more of its energy towards the root of the problem through preventive education aimed at children and teenagers via Facebook and other social media sites. That awareness campaign would be coordinated with the Public Education Ministry.

IAFA could also use some of the funding to help smokers quit.

Lawmakers from the Libertarian Movement say the bill would violate individual liberties. Salas disagrees. “It has to be recognized that the right of one person ends where the right of another person begins, he said. “If we put the individual right to smoke above the right to health of everyone else, we’ve adopted a mistaken position.”

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