Chile anti-smoking bill has tobacco industry on edge

Giovanna Fleitas
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 $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 $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 (25 acres) 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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