San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Can the new anti-smoking law be enforced?

The most desperate effort to rid Costa Rica of ineffective smoking laws started almost four years ago.

Lawmakers helped teach doctors in the National Anti-Tobacco Network how to be politicians. The doctors, in turn, negotiated behind the scenes with lawmakers presenting the grimmest of facts and telling them “this is how the tobacco industry manipulates the truth.” The Social Security System (Caja) conducted a poll showing 93 percent of Costa Ricans supported laws for a smoke-free public.

The momentum did little to dull the influence of the tobacco industry lobby that had dictated smoking policies in the country since the 1980s. Only on Monday, long after lawmakers who spearheaded the movement reached their term limits and exited office, did a toughened anti-smoking bill pass the Legislative Assembly.

Advocates garnered enough support in the assembly to pass – in a 46-2 vote – a comprehensive anti-tobacco bill on Monday, winning at last an uphill struggle. 

“We have demonstrated to the tobacco companies that we are not too small and so weak like they believed we were,” said Teresita Arrieta, of the Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Institute (IAFA).

The bill bans smoking in places such as bars, restaurants, public buildings, bus stops and taxi stands. Individual cigarettes will be taxed an extra ₡20 (4 cents). The bill requires cigarette packs to display text and photo warnings on at least 50 percent of the box. The legislation strengthens some of the weakest tobacco-use laws in Latin America.

One question in particular lingers in the minds of skeptics. Can the law be enforced? 

The bill still awaits the signature of President Laura Chinchilla, and then must be published in the official government newspaper La Gaceta before the rules become official. From there, a 90-day adjustment period begins before fines go into effect. 

Many expect the law’s publication will come around March 15, meaning the day cigarettes must be extinguished from public spaces would be in mid-June. 

In that time, lawmakers and health officials will determine the reglamentos, or regulations, that define how the law will be implemented.  

Health Vice Minister Sisy Castillo, who was a major force in pushing the bill through, displayed confidence that the country can create rules that establishments and people  will not have trouble following.

“We are already working on the [reglamentos],” Castillo said. “We are far along with these regulations in regards to law enforcement.” 

She said the Health Ministry has met with members of the National Police and Chief Prosecutor’s Office to discuss how to handle those caught violating the law, and the best way to supervise bars and other localities where smoking will be banned.

Castillo emphasized to The Tico Times that the reglamentos will address foreigners, including tourists, who disobey the smoking law. 

Large percentages of the cigarette taxes will be earmarked toward treating tobacco-related illnesses and funding programs that assist people in quitting smoking.

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. Almost 15 percent of the country smokes, according to a Caja survey.

Those caught smoking in a prohibited area can face a fine of ₡36,060 ($70). Producers, sellers and advertisers not following the regulations can be hit with a fine of ₡3.6 million ($7,022). The penalty for selling single cigarettes, packs with fewer than 20 cigarettes or tobacco products to minors would be ₡180,000 ($351). The government will have the power to close businesses with outstanding fines.

As the law moves closer to enactment, advocates expect to parry lawsuits taken up on behalf of the tobacco industry and the Costa Rican Chamber of Restaurants and Affiliates – a longtime mouthpiece of tobacco companies that oversees bars and nightclubs.

Carmen Granados, a Citizen Action Party lawmaker, believes the country has taken the necessary steps to prevent legal action by tobacco companies from succeeding. She worked on a committee headed by Rita Chaves of the Access Without Exclusion Party to construct the current version of the bill. 

When the original bill was written, draftees invited experts to vet every aspect of  it, even bringing in legal advisers from the U.S.’s George Washington University, in Washington, D.C., to observe the proposal. Moreover, the bill follows standards set by the World Health Organization, and has been adopted in nine other Latin American countries, including Brazil, which became the largest country in the world to put into practice such measures, in December.

“We should not fear lawsuits, because if we did a good job, then this law will be unaffected,” Granados said. “Yes, tobacco companies are going to try to go after the law … but it’s shielded so nobody will touch it.”

Lawmakers opposed to the bill attempted to halt its passage Monday. The passage came in spite of a challenge by 10 lawmakers to send the bill to the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) to review the constitutionality of the reforms. The Legislative Assembly did not receive a notification from the Sala IV in time to prevent the vote.

Granados said tobacco manufacturers still can challenge specific articles in court, and the Sala IV can decide whether to review the suits. Tabacalera Costarricense, an affiliate of Philip Morris International, has stated the law could result in an increase in contraband cigarettes in Costa Rica due to the cigarette tax increase. A lawsuit is expected about that issue. 

Anti-tobacco advocates in Costa Rica dismiss the argument about a flourishing cigarette black market, saying research shows that it is simply untrue. Studies also show that in countries with similar reforms, business rarely, if ever, suffers as a result of the ban. 

IAFA’s Smoke-Free Spaces Program created plenty of tobacco-free settings in sports arenas, restaurants and malls before the law’s adoption. Arrieta, who heads the program, believes the difficulty of transitioning from a country where smoking is accepted to one that prohibits it has been exaggerated. 

This law is designed to protect public health and does not infringe on individual rights, since a person does not have the privilege to endanger the health of another, Arrieta said.

She already has seen it work in Costa Rica’s notoriously hazy bars. She visited a place called Blue Moon in Cartago, east of San José. Smokers took cigarette breaks outside. The inside was packed with clients. 

Blue Moon manager Michael Mattey said the bar opened in July and remains successful, an image of how other bars might thrive in a Costa Rica free of smoking.  

“It seems all the people who come like it for the same reason, because they don’t smoke,” Mattey said. “But people who smoke come too, and they also seem to like it. Who knew?”

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