With stringy black hair and orange highlights resting on each of her cheeks, Monika Alvarado, 34, hunched her shoulders and dropped her head to shield herself from an afternoon breeze. She slipped a Derby cigarette into her mouth and used her left hand to cup her lighter while lighting up a post-lunch smoke.
Alvarado lifted her head and blew a coiling plume of gray smoke into the air.
“It’s part of my routine,” she said as she sat on a bench in the Plaza de la Democracía outside of the National Museum in downtown San José early Tuesday afternoon. “I always smoke at this time. It relaxes me before returning to work for the second part of the day.”
Just blocks away from Alvarado’s post-lunch smoke, students and anti-tobacco groups led public demonstrations outside of the Legislative Assembly in celebration of “World No Tobacco Day.”
At 9 a.m., dozens of students from across the country arrived in front of Congress to lobby for the passage of a bill titled “The Control of Tobacco and its Harmful Effects on Health,” drafted in 2008. As demonstrations against tobacco broke out, volunteers placed cardboard cutouts of children lined in a row. Signs in the children’s imaginary hands read “I want to breathe clean air,” or “Cigarettes cause asthma.”
“One of our main objectives today is to create awareness about the effect of cigarette smoke on children,” Teresita Arrieta, a representative of the National Anti-Smoking Network of Costa Rica (Renata) told The Tico Times. “The effect of smoking on children carries a very high risk, and, if there is no alteration to legislation, it could result in illnesses throughout the country. About 160,000 children worldwide died last year due to the effects of smoking.”
According to a recent study by the Social Security System, or the Caja, 14.2 percent of Costa Ricans smoke cigarettes, or 639,000 of 4.5 million residents. The study also found that of that total, 65 percent admit to smoking every day, with intake varying between one to 30 cigarettes.
Arrieta said that an average of 10 Costa Ricans die each day due to effects of cigarette smoking and tobacco. She also said there were 3,650 tobacco-related deaths in Costa Rica in 2010. In 2010, the Caja spent nearly $146 million on health expenses related to smoking and tobacco illnesses. The World Health Organization estimates that nearly six million people are expected to die due to tobacco use in 2010, including some 600,000 non-smokers who will die from exposure to secondhand smoke.
The tobacco control bill is Costa Rica’s first attempt to pass legislation that would eliminate smoking within public settings, such as bars, stadiums and restaurants. In recent years, some workplaces and public buildings implemented smoking bans on their own, including the Caja, the recently inaugurated National Stadium in La Sabana, the Morera Soto stadium in Alajuela, and several Central Valley restaurants. According the Facebook page of a group known as “Prohibit Smoking in Public Places in Costa Rica,” 16 restaurants in Costa Rica have disallowed smoking on their premises, including popular venues such as Tin Jo in downtown San José and Lolo’s Pizzeria in Barrio Escalante.
The push to eliminate smoking in public venues is part of a larger international movement that has accelerated during the last five years. According to the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation, based in the U.S., 23 U.S. states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have passed legislation to be 100 percent smoke-free in workplaces, restaurants and bars. A total of 454 U.S. cities have passed laws to be smoke-free in public areas. Currently, 93 countries worldwide have implemented a smoking ban of some sort.
Costa Rica’s Law Lags
While Costa Rican lawmakers didn’t discuss the bill this week, Arrieta spoke to them about the need for anti-smoking legislation on Tuesday. Arrieta said that though the bill remains stalled in Congress, she is confident that it will soon be passed.
“It is a simple law, really,” Arrieta said. “Eliminating smoking in public places benefits the health of the people. The members of the Assembly realize that and continue to express their support for the law. I am confident it will be passed in the short term.”
Arrieta added that she hopes the legislation will be passed before World No Tobacco Day in 2012.
As for Alvarado, she says has been smoking since she was about 19. She smokes five to 10 cigarettes per day and sometimes more on the weekends, but she supports anything that might encourage others to quit.
“I know it’s bad for me, but I actually enjoy it,” she said between drags. “I respect everyone that tries to stop others from smoking and I have no problem with that. I hope they respect my choice like I respect theirs.”