Ex-Philip Morris workers lead Uruguay tobacco crackdown

Giovanna Fleitas
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A passerby walks in front of Philip Morris International's headquarters in Lausanne on August 29, 2007

During the two decades Daniel Gomez spent in the cigarette business at Philip Morris in Uruguay, he never imagined he would one day be promoting and enforcing anti-tobacco laws.

But when the tobacco giant pulled out of Uruguay amid a dispute over a strict smoking crackdown, Gomez and seven coworkers reinvented themselves as anti-tobacco police, joining a government program that sends them around the country to monitor compliance with the new measures.

"It's unusual, but we were left without work from one day to the next, on the street, and it was hard to reinsert ourselves into the labor market," said Gomez, who spent most of his career in cigarette quality control.

"It completely changed our lives," he told AFP.

Their group is called the "October 21 Cooperative," named for the day in 2011 that Philip Morris International shut its Uruguayan factory, complaining that anti-tobacco rules and black-market cigarettes were putting it out of business.

The small South American country has some of the world's strictest anti-tobacco laws.

It was the first country in Latin America to ban smoking in public spaces, a measure it enacted in 2006 under then president Tabare Vazquez, a cancer doctor who made anti-tobacco legislation a personal crusade.

Cigarette packs carry graphic pictures of cancer patients to warn smokers of the dangers, tobacco firms are forbidden from using marketing terms such as "light" or "mild", and cigarette ads are banned from TV, newspapers and radio -- all legacies left by Vazquez, who is running for president again in elections this October.

Philip Morris hit back at the crackdown by suing Uruguay for $25 million at the World Bank's International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes in 2010, alleging the country had violated treaties by devaluing its trademarks and investments.

The case is ongoing.

- Other side of the counter -

Like Gomez, Luis Santana spent more than 20 years working at Philip Morris, mostly in quality control.

He remembers being torn over the new anti-tobacco measures when they were introduced.

"It was my livelihood, but I knew it was an unhealthy product," he said. "In the back of my mind, I was aware that the measures they were taking were widely accepted and that what people were saying had scientific proof behind it."

A non-smoker, he recalled how he once took up the habit for a few months because Philip Morris gave its employees regular cigarette breaks. He gave it up when he noticed he started getting fatigued from activities like climbing stairs.

After Philip Morris closed its doors in Uruguay, the eight colleagues in the October 21 Cooperative spent more than two years without work.

Then the health ministry launched a plan to reintegrate them into the labor market in tobacco-related jobs of a different kind -- helping implement the new legislation.

The program guarantees them work for at least two more years.

"Our work has three main components: promoting healthy behavior, educating people about tobacco control laws and enforcing compliance," said David Veloz, who landed his first job at Philip Morris when he was 25 and worked there for 32 years.

Their new jobs continue to expand, as they now also monitor a law passed by Congress this month banning cigarette ads and tobacco product displays, even in stores where they are sold.

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