Thursday, May 31, 2012

Fantasy Laws Won't Fight Tobacco

Lighting up an outlawed loosie in La Candelaria.
Today was Tobacco-Free Day - a real misnomer if you observed the puffing on Bogotá's streets. According to the Ministry of Health, some 20,000 Colombians are either killed or sickened by tobacco every year. That's far more than die from the country's armed conflict, which still dominates the news - and budgets.

A vendor sells a loose cigarette on La Plaza del Chorro. 
The health ministry is proposing increasing the cost of cigarettes by raising taxes, which are some of the lowest in the region. Raising the cost of cigarettes is one of the most effective strategies for discouraging people, especially young people, from smoking. But such a strategy will be pointless if the tobacco companies evade taxes by facilitating the smuggling of cigarettes, as they have notoriously done in the past. Colombia's provinces even sued international tobacco companies for collaborating with criminals to smuggle cigarettes into Colombia to avoid taxes - thus getting more people hooked on cheap smokes and even enriching the nation's terrorist organizations, since those incoming smokes were often traded for exported cocaine.

I watched this street vendor, across the street of
a high school, selling loose cigarettes to passer-by. 
Any new ideas need to distinguish between theory and Colombian reality. Take the law against the sale of loose cigarettes, which went into effect in Bogotá in July. Ending loosie sales is key to preventing kids from starting a life-long smoking habit. That's because young people often don't have the guts or the disposable income to buy a whole pack, but do have the few hundred pesos to buy a loose 'stick.'

The problem has been the total lack of enforcement. I took the photos on this page of street vendors in La Candelaria - a neighborhood full of high schools and universities - selling loose cigarettes.

Vendors, who don't earn much, will keep selling cigarettes by the stick as long as they can because they earn a lot more this way than they do selling a sealed pack. And, as I've often witnessed, many vendors lack compunction about selling to kids.

Why are these cigarette boxes, for sale on the street downhill from a high school, already opened?
How could they enforce the anti-loosie law? The best way would be sting operations. Have kids try to buy loosies. If a vendor sells cigarettes 'by the stick' then confisticate his or her cigarettes. If they get caught again, then seize their cart for a few days. It sounds harsh, but it would save lives.

On the other hand, passing laws which aren't enforced will help nobody but the legal printers.

An anti-smoking art exhibition the Biblioteca Luis Angel Arango (BLAA) in La Candelaria.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

1 comment:

city said...

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