Friday, June 4, 2010

Who'll Stop the Cigarrette?

Colombia is finally taking real steps against cigarette smoking - or trying to.

A recent law requires graphic symbols on cigarette packages, which will add to or replace the existing very weak warning, which says only 'Smoking is damaging to health'. One of the new symbols, which have already begun appearing on packages, shows a cigarette curved downward to represent impotence. Bogotá also recently passed an anti-indoor smoking law, which is being respected to a surprsing degree, even by many bars. The law will also further restrict advertising and ban sales of loose cigarettes - which get kids hooked. (Tobacco interests tried defending the habit as a civil right!)

Cigarettes for 5 cents each in the public university.

Loose smokes, peanuts and candy for sale together on a Bogota sidewalk.

Colombia has a particularly ugly history in relation to tobacco. Media investigations about a decade ago documented how Philip Morris and British American Tobacco sold huge quantities of cigarettes to shady companies on the Durch Island of Aruba, which then smuggled them into Colombia. The smuggling was apparently used by Colombia's outlaw guerrillas and paramilitaries to launder their drug money - yet another connection between tobacco and terrorism.

Have a free Marlboro today. You'll pay for it forever. 
Colombia still has a long way to go. I still see attractive young kids handing out cigarette 'samples' to young people on streets near universities. And they don't ask for proof that the recipients are of smoking age. And, the Mustang brand still sponsors a professional soccer tournament - something which I'd thought was illegal.

And the question, as always, will be enforcement. Particularly destructive are the loose cigarette sales by informal street vendors. Those are favorites for high school and college kids, who, according to a recent study, can get hooked by smoking just one cigarette per month! Kids usually don't have the cash to buy a whole box, and anyway they don't want mom to discover that box in their jacket pocket. So, loose smoke sales are a convenient way for them to get hooked.

Single cigarette sales are supposed to be banned by the new law, but I'm waiting to see them try to enforce this. The best way, by having kids try to buy, doesn't seem to be in the Colombian police's toolbox.

Smoking reportedly causes 400 deaths per year in Bogotá - a number which surely doesn't include deaths by second-hand smoke. Even so, that's many more people who are killed in the city by terrorism. Yet, the United States government sends billions of dollars down here to combat terrorism, while US companies continue pushing tobacco products on young Colombians.

This blog written by Mike Ceaser, of Bogota Bike Tours.

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