by Maria Cecilia Espinosa
(IPS) SANTIAGO -- Cigarettes kill 14,000 people a year in Chile, which has one of the highest smoking rates in Latin America.
But despite these facts, the country's anti-smoking legislation is weak, and attempts to bolster it have been hindered by pressure from large tobacco companies, according to lawmakers and consumer rights groups.
After signing the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), the Ricardo Lagos government took over a year to submit a bill to Congress seeking its ratification.
The bill was finally presented on Nov. 15, but only after a group of lawmakers had threatened to charge the Chilean minister of health, Pedro Garcia, with violating the country's constitution.
Consumers International's (CI) Santiago-based regional office for Latin America and the Caribbean is now conducting a petition campaign, collecting signatures to demand that Lagos fast-track the bill in question.
Ironically, its current classification as "simply urgent" -- as opposed to "extremely urgent" -- means that its adoption could actually be delayed indefinitely.
In the meantime, Chiletabacos, the Chilean subsidiary of British American Tobacco (BAT) that controls 98 percent of cigarette sales in Chile, is spearheading a campaign of its own, seeking to improve its image by sponsoring cultural and educational activities while attempting to convince the public that banning smoking in public places is synonymous with intolerance.
"For Chiletabacos, the word 'rights' only exists in reference to the rights of the country's four million smokers. It doesn't recognize the 'right' of non-smokers to have their health protected," states a report from the CIPRESS Foundation, a Chilean non-governmental organization.
According to CI, the tobacco industry as a whole has a global strategy aimed at capturing markets in the South to compensate for the markets it is losing in the industrialized countries of the North, due to anti-smoking legislation.
The tobacco transnationals have been highly successful in Latin America, where the number of smokers has increased by 68 percent, while 10 percent of smokers in the United States and Europe have kicked the habit, according to CI statistics.
The Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) reported in May that 45 percent of men and 35 percent of women over the age of 12 in Chile and Argentina are smokers.
As a result, more than 70 percent of children and adolescents in these countries regularly breathe in second-hand cigarette smoke in their own homes, making them "passive smokers."
For CI and the Chilean Consumers Organization (ODECU), this fact constitutes a violation of the country's constitution, which establishes the Chilean people's right "to live in an environment free from pollution."
The FCTC, signed by Chile in September 2003, has been ratified by 37 countries so far. This means that only three more ratifications are needed for the treaty to enter into force, at which point it will apply to all signatory countries, whether they have ratified it or not.
All of the countries of Latin America have signed the convention, with the exception of Colombia and the Dominican Republic, while only four have ratified it: Mexico, Panama, Peru and Uruguay.
Once the FCTC enters into effect, the Chilean government will have to comply with the convention's provisions by more strictly enforcing the rules adopted in 1995 regarding non-smoking areas, regulating cigarette advertising and sales to minors under 18 years of age, raising taxes on tobacco products, working harder to control smuggling, and more effectively publicising the harmful effects of tobacco, by printing warnings on cigarette packages, for example.
The convention will affect the way the tobacco industry operates internationally, through restrictions on cigarette advertising and the incorporation of controls on this form of advertising in national and international public health policies.
Adolescents who pick up the cigarette habit become tobacco consumers for 30 years or more, and it is specifically Chileans in this age group who are far more likely to smoke than their counterparts in other Latin American countries. According to health ministry statistics, 34 percent of teenage boys and 43 percent of teenage girls in Chile are smokers.
British American Tobacco ranks second worldwide in cigarette sales, with a 15 percent global market share. It boasts on its website of being "the world's most international tobacco group," with brands sold in 180 different countries.
Latin America and the Caribbean accounted for 18.9 percent of BAT's global sales in 2003, while Chiletabacos alone contributed 22 million dollars to the corporation's 1.42 billion dollars in profits that year.
Chiletabacos also pays more taxes to the Chilean state than any other private company, representing five percent of all taxation revenues. Taxes make up 60.4 percent of the sales price of cigarettes in Chile.
In August 1990, the Chilean government put forward draft legislation to prohibit tobacco company sponsorship of cultural, social or sports activities, sales of cigarettes to minors under 18 years of age, and sales of loose cigarettes, in addition to requiring printed warnings on the dangers of smoking covering at least 20 percent of the surface of cigarette packages.
But none of these initiatives was ever implemented, and the so-called Tobacco Law, passed in 1995, was limited to assigning the Ministry of Health the task of establishing "a clear and precise warning on the specific health risks implied by tobacco consumption."
In 1997, the Ministry of Education was instructed to develop curriculum content aimed at educating students on the benefits of non-smoking and the harm caused by cigarettes, with an emphasis on prevention and rehabilitation.
Nevertheless, according to lawmaker Fulvio Rossi of the co-governing Socialist Party, "in practice there is no legislation to control tobacco addiction, as is demonstrated by the exponential rise in cigarette smoking among schoolchildren and women."
Existing legislation places no restrictions on advertising, does nothing to more effectively combat cigarette smuggling, and does not require significant warnings on the dangers of smoking on cigarette packages, he told IPS. In the meantime, the price of cigarettes remains highly affordable.
Rossi, one of the legislators who threatened to charge the health minister with violating the constitution, also pointed out that rules regarding smoking and non-smoking areas in public establishments are not being enforced, "although in practice," he added, "it has been shown that there are just as many carcinogens in non-smoking sections as in smoking sections."
In its own defense, Chiletabacos points to the high taxes charged on the products it sells, which translate into a considerable contribution to the state coffers.
The company says it has a legitimate right to manufacture and market a legal product, as well as a constitutional right to be treated equally before the law, and to freely communicate with its clients through advertising.
Moreover, the company stresses, it provides direct employment to roughly 700 workers, in addition to thousands of jobs in the production chain for this product, while sponsoring countless philanthropic, educational and cultural programs.
The directors and executives of Chiletabacos form part of the highest stratum of the country's industrial and financial elite.
However, according to the CIPRESS Foundation report, "its main goals are to prevent tax increases, protect its advertising and publicity options, and stop any attempts to adopt regulations or legislation aimed at eliminating second-hand smoke in closed spaces."
The support Chiletabacos gives to cultural, sports and philanthropic activities, as well as the considerable taxes it contributes to the state treasury, represent "enormous pressure on the government to stall the ratification of the FCTC, as has been demonstrated up until now," Yul Francisco Dorado, one of the organisers of the CI petition drive, told IPS.
Dorado pointed to a PAHO-sponsored study carried out by the schools of medicine and economics at the University of Chile, which revealed that the state spends 1.14 billion dollars annually on the treatment of smoking-related medical problems, such as lung cancer, heart disease and chronic respiratory illnesses.
"The amount of money spent on treating tobacco-related illnesses far outweighs the tax contributions made by Chiletabacos," he said.
The ratification of the FCTC will improve the quality of life, well-being and health of the Chilean people, Omar Pérez Santiago, the coordinator of ODECU, told IPS.
Above all, it will lead to "a coherent policy towards tobacco addiction as an epidemic that kills a great many people in Chile and around the world." By recognizing the habit as a disease, he added, it will come to be viewed as such by society as a whole, which will lead to the creation of a healthier environment for everyone.
November 30, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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