Anti-smoking laws in Costa Rica are a risky issue. Tobacco use in the country is so prevalent that it has a significant impact on its health statistics, and legislation has been in the works for decades.
Costa Rica was actually the first to enact antismoking laws in Latin America, banning smoking in the workplaces in the ’80s, but now it lags far behind all its neighbors, such as Uruguay, Honduras and Guatemala. Each attempt at legislation has been stifled every step of the way by tobacco companies, senators, even health ministry officials and doctors.
Costa Rica’s major misstep was in passing watered down bills, essentially compromising with the tobacco industry. They were allowed to advertise, including anti peer-pressure and minor smoking messages. Public establishments that were supposed to be enforcing a ban, were allowed to designate smoking areas justified by a ‘courtesy of choice.’ Under the ‘courtesy of choice’, the government conceded that nonsmokers would be sufficiently protected from secondhand smoke since smokers were given their own area.
Now, the anti-smoking lobby is hitting back hard, with a far harsher antismoking law that bans smoking in all public areas without qualification, including not only restaurants and offices but city streets. The law also bans selling small packs and individual cigarettes. The law, presumably intended to make the country go cold turkey, was passed with the support of anti-smoking politicians including no less than the current President Laura Chinchilla herself.
However, the law is not having the intended effect. The futility of making the entire Costa Rican smoking public quit is demonstrated with dirty streets and sidewalks, especially in front of bars and restaurants. Cynically, their owners have scrambled to provide patrons ashtrays and trash cans just outside these establishments, as they simply have no choice. And this is where the law goes wrong.
The anti-smoking lobby can point to the health statistics and talk about the tobacco lobby as much as they want, but they continue to ignore the elephant in the room. Laws will not end Costa Rica’s smoking culture. Costa Rica has been mired in tobacco for centuries, before they even interacted with Western civilization. Mesoamericans smoked to enter altered states, commune with the spirit world, and now perhaps, just to relax.
This is why airports have smoking zones. Smoking is just not going to go away like that, not when it’s such a deeply ingrained part of Costa Rican culture. Perhaps now that Costa Rica is feeling the effects of pushing too hard towards both ends of the spectrum, the main stakeholders in both sides of the debate can come up with a better law that better serves the public interest.
Certainly, cigar aficionados agree that smoking should enrich, not be a detriment to one’s daily life. In contrast to cigarettes, cigars have been heavily associated with an upscale, refined lifestyle, and subsequently cigar smokers have set certain limits and conditions to where and how often they smoke. As smoking regulation is sorted out, perhaps it would be better to cultivate such a culture among the general tobacco consuming public.
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