San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Smoking ban advances, but vote delayed

Luis Ruiz stood outside a diner in downtown San José. A cigarette flitted between his fingers – his post-breakfast smoke break. 

For the last decade, the taxi driver has ended his meals with a cigarette. That habit could be threatened with Costa Rica passing far-reaching anti-tobacco reforms in a first vote in the Legislative Assembly on Monday. Lawmakers failed to reach a second vote Thursday after members several parties broke quorum. Legislators will attempt a final vote on Monday. 

Ruiz, like many Costa Ricans, welcomes change.

“It is motivation to stop smoking,” Ruiz, 50, said. “Soon I’ll say, ‘No more.’”

Research alluded to by Health Ministry officials reflects wide support for the bill. Approximately 90 percent of the country supports stricter smoking laws, despite 15 percent of residents stating they are regular smokers.

The long-delayed legislation would allow Costa Rica to fall in line with internationally recognized guidelines set by the World Health Organization. It would ban smoking in bars, restaurants, public buildings, bus stops and taxi stands. Individual cigarettes would be taxed an extra 20 (4 cents). The bill would require cigarette packs to display text and photo warnings on at least 50 percent of the box. Tax revenue would be earmarked for smoking cessation programs.

The bill also would provide funding for inspectors and other measures.

“It’s an important victory for everyone who has fought for the good of public health and against tobacco addiction and the economic power of the tobacco industry, which has applied strong  pressure to keep the bill from passing like it has all over the world,” said José María Villalta, a lawmaker from the Broad Front Party. 

Lawmakers worked for three years with members of the Health Ministry and the National Anti-Tobacco Network (RENATA) on the “Control of Tobacco and Its Harmful Effects on Health” legislation before garnering enough support to pass it.

Roberto Castro, a doctor from the Health Ministry who heads RENATA, called the effort a “very complicated process,” saying he and his colleagues over the last couple of years had learned to become politicians and understand how to win backers. The bill failed to muster enough votes in past incarnations throughout the years.

Health organizations in Costa Rica studied what worked in other countries when drafting the bill. Castro cited “Trust Us: We’re the Tobacco Industry,” a compilation of confidential tobacco industry documents demonstrating the industry’s propaganda tactics, as an instrumental text for winning over members of the Legislative Assembly.

He saw the bill’s passage in the first round of voting as a major victory for the government of Laura Chinchilla, who made passing stricter smoking legislation one of her administration’s priorities. 

Statistics about tobacco use in Costa Rica also convinced lawmakers to tighten smoking laws. A study by the Social Security System (Caja) last May showed 14.2 percent of Costa Ricans smoke cigarettes, or 639,000 of 4.5 million residents.

In 2010, the Caja spent nearly $146 million on health expenses tied to smoking and tobacco-related illnesses. Tobacco plays a large role in cardiovascular illnesses, one of the country’s leading causes of death.

Some supporters remain skeptical about the new regulations going into practice since tobacco companies British America Tobacco and Philip Morris are expected to fight the bill’s passage. 

The two tobacco giants have dominated Costa Rican smoking policy for decades. Legislation backers expect the industry to challenge any articles that litigators believe can be declared unconstitutional in the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV). If the Sala IV chooses to accept the suits, the law, or at least portions of it, could be delayed for months. 

Villalta believes the cigarette tax particularly could be vulnerable to corporate complaints. Still, proponents insist that each part of the anti-tobacco law will be declared legal, since it follows the World Health Organization guidelines. Those standards already have been realized in close to 100 countries.

After a second vote, the bill would go to Chinchilla’s desk for signing.

Guillermo Oliva, director of corporate affairs at Tabacalera Costarricense, an affiliate of Philip Morris International, released a statement questioning the law’s effectiveness.

“As has happened in other countries, imposing extreme measures not only did not reach public health goals, but resulted in the proliferation of cheap illegal cigarettes, increasing the level of crimes in communities,” Oliva said.

The Costa Rican Chamber of Restaurants and Affiliates (CACORE) has voiced disgust with the bill, with president Manuel Burgos stating publicly on multiple occasions, “What about smokers’ rights?” 

A number of restaurants, workplaces, hospitals and venues such as soccer stadiums banned smoking before the arrival of the new bill. But CACORE also oversees bars and nightclubs in the country, where cigarette sales can be hugely profitable. In past comments on the issue, the chamber has referred to the legislation as draconian. 

Anti-tobacco advocates see flaws in that position, explaining that the government has the right to regulate products. 

“We’re not talking about a law that prohibits the sale of cigarettes,” Castro responded. “We’re talking about a law that restricts places to smoke where there will be people.”

Johanna Secada, 22, appreciates that concern. She has a 3-year-old son and struggles to keep him away from second-hand smoke.

“Many smokers don’t respect little kids,” Secada said. “They smoke right in his face. The bill is excellent.”

According to fines included in the bill, smoking in prohibited areas would cost smokers 36,060 ($70). Fines for producers, sellers and advertisers would cost 3.6 million ($7,022). The penalty for selling single cigarettes, packs with less than 20 cigarettes or tobacco products to minors would be 180,000 ($351). Businesses could be closed for outstanding fines.

Some residents have concerns about how the country would enforce a new law, especially regarding the challenge of fining and collecting payment. President Chinchilla also has discussed the need to address contraband cigarettes, which could proliferate as a result. 

Those obstacles, from black market cigarettes to impending lawsuits, will be key challenges to the bill’s success. But at this moment, the first approval of the bill represents a historic change for Costa Rica.

“Since the 1980s, the tobacco companies have influenced the Legislative Assembly. I think what has changed is that this bill comes with the backing of the [World Health Organization],” Villata said. “This gave the country the weight to alter the rules of tobacco use.”

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