Chile anti-smok­ing bill has to­bacco in­dus­try on edge


A tough anti-smok­ing bill is try­ing to get nico­tine-hooked Chile to kick the habit, but has pro­voked a back­lash from the pow­er­ful to­bacco in­dus­try.

The bill would force cig­a­rette mak­ers to use iden­ti­cal pack­ag­ing cov­ered in chill­ing anti-smok­ing ads, limit smok­ing at beaches and parks to small, des­ig­nated ar­eas and — most in­fu­ri­at­ingly for the to­bacco in­dus­try — ban men­thol cig­a­rettes, the fla­vor of choice for 40 per­cent of Chilean smok­ers.

Chile al­ready banned smok­ing in restau­rants, bars, cine­mas and the like in 2013.

The new leg­is­la­tion — which has passed the Chilean Se­nate and is cur­rently be­fore the lower house — seeks to tighten the rules.

Chile has the high­est per­cent­age of smok­ers of any coun­try in Latin Amer­ica: 28 per­cent of adults smoke at least once a day, ac­cord­ing to the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion.

In this coun­try of some 18 mil­lion, some 46 peo­ple die here ev­ery day of smok­ing-re­lated ill­nesses, health of­fi­cials say.

But the coun­try is also home to a US$2-bil­lion to­bacco in­dus­try that di­rectly or in­di­rectly cre­ates some 15,000 jobs, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Agri­cul­ture So­ci­ety.

The pro­posed law has drawn a bit­ter re­ac­tion from Bri­tish Amer­i­can To­bacco (BAT), the Lon­don-based multi­na­tional cig­a­rette gi­ant, which sells 13 bil­lion cig­a­rettes a year in Chile — 90 per­cent of the lo­cal mar­ket.

“If they pass the bill as it stands to­day, we’ll close our fac­tory,” said Car­los Lopez, head of cor­po­rate af­fairs for BAT Chile.

He slammed the bill’s “dis­pro­por­tion­ate” and “of­ten illegal” pro­vi­sions on generic pack­ag­ing and the “sci­en­tif­i­cally un­founded” ban on men­thol.

BAT warns the mea­sures would fuel a thriv­ing black mar­ket, which it claims has al­ready ex­panded by 400 per­cent in the past five years.

‘Killing’ Farm­ers

Chile could be­come the first coun­try in the world to ban men­thol cig­a­rettes na­tion­wide.

Some health of­fi­cials say the ad­di­tive is aimed at get­ting chil­dren hooked by giv­ing cig­a­rettes a cool mint fla­vor and mak­ing them less harsh to smoke.

Euro­pean Union law­mak­ers voted to out­law men­thol cig­a­rettes last year. But the ban will only take ef­fect in 2022 — and then only if it sur­vives var­i­ous le­gal chal­lenges.

Brazil passed a sim­i­lar ban in 2012, but it re­mains tied up in the courts.

The bill would put Chile along­side Uruguay and Panama as hav­ing the tough­est anti-smok­ing laws in Latin Amer­ica.

Uruguayan Pres­i­dent Tabare Vazquez, a can­cer doc­tor, was the re­gion’s trail­blazer.

In 2006, he signed a tough anti-smok­ing law that in­cluded Latin Amer­ica’s first ban on smok­ing in en­closed public spa­ces.

The move won his gov­ern­ment plau­dits from public health of­fi­cials world­wide, but earned the small South Amer­i­can coun­try the wrath of big to­bacco.

Multi­na­tional to­bacco firm Philip Mor­ris is su­ing Uruguay for US$25 mil­lion in an on­go­ing case, al­leg­ing the leg­is­la­tion vi­o­lates an in­vest­ment treaty with Switzer­land.

In Chile, the pro­posed law also has the coun­try’s 500 to­bacco farm­ers on edge.

“They’re killing small farm­ing with this law,” said Miguel Urzua, who runs a small to­bacco op­er­a­tion on 10 hectares of land in Chim­barongo, just south of the cap­i­tal San­ti­ago.

Urzua got ad­vances to buy his to­bacco-dry­ing ovens and other equip­ment from BAT.

He said he fears that if the leg­is­la­tion passes he will not be able to pay the money back.

“There’s noth­ing else around that we could do to make up for the lost in­come,” he said.

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