Costa Rica tries to go smoke-free

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — Felipe Sanchez and Maria Aleman share a pack of cigarettes and talk over a couple bottles of beer early one evening at the Bahamas Bar.

Their tobacco smoke lingers out of the bar, passing by the bartender, who lights his own cigarette, and wafts right by the bouncer who fiddles with a lighter in his hand.

To enter a bar in this popular downtown San Jose neighborhood, Barrio California, often means to leave that establishment later smelling like an ashtray.

Some 14.2 percent of Costa Ricans smoke, most between ages 20 and 39, according to the Costa Rican Social Security System. Casual smokers proliferate in the country’s nightlife. 

But that could change soon. Lawmakers last week passed a bill that will ban smoking in all public spaces, including bus and taxi stops, public buildings, restaurants and bars.

Read more: Smoking by numbers in Latin America

The legislation goes further: It prohibits the sale of individual cigarettes; adds a 4-cent tax per cigarette, bumping up the price of most 20-cigarette packs from around $2 to $2.80; bans cigarette advertising; and mandates that most of the box must carry graphic or textual health warnings.

The bill will be reviewed by the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court before it can get the president’s signature and go into law.

Costa Rica is considered a progressive country on health and environment policies, but it’s been slow to reform its lax smoking rules.

If the court gives the green light, Costa Rica will become the 10th Latin American country to enact a law following guidelines set by the World Health Organization for 100 percent smoke-free public spaces.

The legislation is expected to take effect in mid-summer, giving businesses and government some time to adjust.

Residents too will have time to cope.

“Every person who comes to a bar here, they smoke and they drink, wherever they go,” Sanchez, 22, said. “I think it’s a law that’s very stupid.”

Aleman, 20, said she’s pleased that inconsiderate smokers will be stopped from carelessly blowing smoke into someone’s face. Still, she sees the law as too strict, since bars cannot maintain a smoking section. But if there’s no area for smokers, she always could walk outside to smoke?

Or: “I’ll smoke less,” Aleman said. “Go outside to smoke — why bother? It could be raining and freezing outside. That would be the worst.”

Her statement typifies why 100 percent smoke-free policies have been successful in other countries. Research shows businesses don’t fold or lose huge profits over a loss of cigarette-smoking clientele. The places simply get cleaner.

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Many believe the multinational tobacco companies have lobbied hard here to hold back anti-smoking rules and the corporations are expected to challenge the tough new law in court.

Gerardo Lizano, spokesman for British American Tobacco Costa Rica, told GlobalPost the company is not averse to regulation outright. “The kind of commercial product we manage requires regulations, including on issues of advertising and warnings,” he said.

“The way to regulate cigarettes shouldn’t be through higher taxation. A disproportionate tax has a clear risk of growing contraband,” he added.

Besides over-taxation, Lizano claimed, the law would violate the company's rights and those of consumers by eliminating smoking spaces and by co-opting the package design with warning messages.

Costa Rica’s other leading cigarette maker, Tabacalera Costarricense, the local branch of Philip Morris, also said in a news release that the law is too strict and warned such measures will serve to boost the underground cigarette market.

Heavy criticism of the law has also come from the Restaurant Chamber, which defends the interests of eateries, bars and nightclubs and has worked with the tobacco industry for decades.

Roberto Castro, a Health Ministry doctor who coordinates the National Anti-Tobacco Network, said the law does not infringe on individual rights. The government has a duty to protect public health. Cigarette sales will not be banned, only the places where you can smoke them.

The public health care system spent $146 million in 2010 to treat illnesses brought on by tobacco use, roughly 6 percent of health insurance spending, according to Castro.

The new cigarette tax will go toward treating tobacco-related diseases and programs that help smokers quit.

A 2009 poll by the Health Ministry showed 93 percent of Costa Ricans supported the law, despite almost 15 percent of the population calling themselves smokers.

Eric Crosbie, a researcher at the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), wrote a paper called "Tobacco industry success in Costa Rica.” He spent a year detailing how Costa Rica fell so far behind in smoking reforms. In Central America, Panama, Guatemala and Honduras all have passed public smoking bans.

In the 1980s, Costa Rica looked ahead of the curve in limiting tobacco use, but the tobacco industry used its economic pull to stall stiffer laws, according to Crosbie.

More from the region: What's Latin America's secret economic growth story?

“They thought if we stop Costa Rica from progressing, this will create a domino effect and stop other countries from adopting anti-tobacco laws,” Crosbie said.

The corporations negotiated with health officials and lawmakers to allow tobacco companies to “self-police” advertising and other policies. Crosbie claimed the industry hired scientists to produce studies that downplay the effects of second-hand smoking.

In 1995, Costa Rica passed a weakened anti-tobacco law, featuring language dictated by cigarette manufacturers. It took 17 years for those restrictions to be tightened, after intense pressure led by the National Anti-Tobacco Network finally won out over the tobacco lobby.

Crosbie cited the UCSF Legacy Tobacco Documents Library, which contains 70 million pages of once-confidential tobacco industry documents, to support his research.

He said studies show standard tobacco producer arguments “exaggerate claims over contraband cigarettes” and continue to promote smoking sections with costly and sophisticated ventilation systems that are less effective than smoke-free laws.

The British American Tobacco spokesman, citing industry research, said neighboring Panama has stiff laws and high taxes on cigarettes and that Central American country's bootleg market has gobbled up 70 percent of national cigarette sales.

Stephanie Santiago, a manager at a Barrio California nightclub, El Observatorio, believes the smoke-free transition might go more smoothly than imagined.

El Observatorio has been testing no-smoking policies during specific weeknights, said Santiago, who quit smoking two years ago. The feedback during those events has been appreciative from non-smokers and smokers alike, she added.

Bahamas Bar manager Marcos Muñoz said he respects the new law, but believes the severity will make it “impossible” to enforce.

He acknowledges that the bar will lose some revenue — it sells as many as 80 cigarette packs on busy nights — and would prefer to allow designated smoking areas.

Personally, Muñoz said, the rule won’t affect him much. Although he smokes, he’s been doing it a lot less lately to protect the health of those around him. His wife last month gave birth to their daughter.

“When I leave my house walk and around San Jose with my baby, I don't smoke. So the law wont affect me,” Muñoz, 40, said. “But for others who smoke and want a cigarette and can't have it, we'll see what happens.”

Alex Leff contributed reporting.

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