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President signs anti-smoking bill

From the print edition

President Laura Chinchilla on Thursday morning signed the Control of Tobacco and its Harmful Effects on Health Bill, approving wide-ranging changes to Costa Rica’s regulations on smoking.

Her signature marks the end of a struggle to ratify stricter tobacco laws. A previous bill was written in 2009, the same year that a Health Ministry poll showed 93 percent support for stricter laws.

Chinchilla remarked that this moment should have come years ago, but she applauded those who refused to let the bill die.

“I recognize all health institutions, which did not lower the flag and fought for the passage of this law,” the president said at a ceremony at Casa Presidencial in Zapote, in southeastern San José.

The law becomes official once it is published in the government newspaper, La Gaceta, which Chinchilla said would happen “as soon as possible.” A 90-day adjustment period then begins as officials determine reglamentos, or regulations, that explain how the law will be enforced. Health Ministry officials are working on the regulations with the Alcoholism and Drug Dependency Institute (IAFA) and the National Anti-Tobacco Network, among others.

Antismoking Bill Sign 2

President Laura Chinchilla scored a political victory this week by signing a tough smoking bill into law.
Alberto Font

The bill bans smoking in places such as bars, restaurants, public buildings, bus stops and taxi stands. Taxes will increase ₡20 ($0.04 cents) per cigarette. The bill mandates cigarette packs display text and photo warnings on at least 50 percent of the box. Central American neighbors Guatemala, Honduras and Panama already approved similar measures, as did six countries in South America.

After the signing ceremony, the media amassed around doctors and lawmakers who pushed for the bill in an effort that Roberto Castro, director of the National Anti-Tobacco Network, likened to David versus Goliath. The influence of tobacco companies had influenced smoking policy in the country since the late 1980s (TT, March 9).

Access Without Exclusion Party member Rita Chaves, who headed the committee in charge of the bill, called the law an “important advancement” for the country.

“We are very satisfied,” said Teresita Arrieta, of IAFA. “And now we’re waiting anxiously for the implementation of the law.”

The battle by lawmakers to pass a stricter anti-tobacco law overcame its final hurdle on Tuesday when the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) ruled the bill is constitutional.

In a 5-2 decision, the court said the legislation did not contain any procedural errors or articles that could be deemed unconstitutional.

Two magistrates who approved the bill questioned why the Sala IV reviewed the legislation in the first place.

On Feb. 27, Costa Rican lawmakers passed the 100-percent smoke-free environment bill in a 45-2 vote, sending it to the president to sign. However, in a controversial move, the Sala IV accepted a last-minute petition by 10 opposition legislators to assess the bill’s constitutionality before Chinchilla could sign it into law.

Judges Luis Jinesta and Ana Virginia Calzada stated the Sala IV never had authority to review the bill since it already had passed the Legislative Branch. Still, tobacco reforms held up under scrutiny – and for the reasons anti-tobacco advocates had cited all along.

The judges wrote that there’s no proof the bill’s tax increase would encourage contraband, an argument made by tobacco companies Philip Morris and British American Tobacco. Smokers’ rights are not infringed upon since the law does not ban the sale of tobacco products, the Sala IV affirmed. It only limits where products can be used in an effort to protect public health. The smokers’ rights argument had been made repeatedly by leaders of the country’s Restaurant Chamber, which oversees bars and clubs in Costa Rica.

In addition, the Sala IV referenced the effectiveness of the law in other countries in regards to protecting the public. The smoke-free bill follows guidelines set by the World Health Organization, already put into practice in nine other Latin American countries.

The law’s execution faces several challenges. Health Minister Daisy Corrales said the country needs to train more police officers to monitor the law, which doles out heavy fines to offenders and could lead to the temporary closure of businesses caught violating the decree. The country also will take action to combat contraband cigarettes.

Corrales said 60 percent of funds that will come from the cigarette tax will go toward the Social Security System to treat tobacco-related illnesses and create programs to help smokers quit.

Representatives for the tobacco industry and the Restaurant Chamber both stated to media Tuesday night that they would accept the ruling. Chinchilla told reporters she had not spoken with members of the tobacco industry or the chamber yet. The president added she’s open to discussions with them, but couldn’t see why it would be necessary.

“We are going to see a process that will benefit everyone,” she said.

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