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Latin America at Forefront of War on Tobacco
email this pageprint this pageemail usMarcela Valente - Inter Press Service
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November 17, 2010

Buenos Aires - Latin America and the Caribbean are taking firm steps against the use of tobacco with the adoption of no smoking laws, bans on advertising, and graphic pictorial warnings on cigarette packets.

But some countries in the region are lagging behind, despite well-organised anti-smoking movements.

"While the entire region moves ahead on this, Argentina is way behind on tobacco control measures," Dr. Verónica Schoj, director of the Interamerican Heart Foundation-Argentina (IAHF Argentina), told IPS.

The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) was negotiated under the auspices of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and adopted in 2003. It entered into force in early 2005 and now has 171 parties.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, 26 countries have signed and ratified the convention and are applying it by means of legislation and decrees.

Argentina has failed to ratify it, as all bills to that effect have been blocked in Congress.

The WHO reports that tobacco use kills more than five million people a year worldwide.

Follow-up on the degree to which different nations in the region have complied with the FCTC has taken front seat this week, at the Fourth Conference of the Parties to the Convention.

The conference, which is being held for the first time in Latin America, is running Nov. 15-20 in the posh resort of Punta del Este on Uruguay's Atlantic coast.

"Uruguay was chosen because it is one of the countries in the region that has made the most progress on tobacco control. But Argentina is only attending as an observer, because it is lagging so far behind," Schoj said.

The IAHF, one of 400 NGOs in Argentina advocating for tobacco control policies, presented the first civil society report on the implementation of the FCTC in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The report, "Framework Convention on Tobacco Control: Challenges for Latin America and the Caribbean - Civil Society Report 2010", provides detailed information gathered from NGOs in 20 countries.

The study reported that as of October, the countries in the region that had not yet ratified the Convention were Argentina, Cuba, El Salvador, Haiti, St. Kitts and Nevis, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. The Dominican Republic has not even signed it.

The rest of the countries in the region have ratified the Convention and have passed tobacco control legislation. Twelve countries have introduced health warnings with pictorial images on cigarette packages: Brazil, Venezuela, Uruguay, Chile, Mexico, Panama, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Honduras, Paraguay and Nicaragua (in the order of adoption of the measure.)

Ten countries - Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Panama, Peru, Uruguay, Colombia, Bolivia, Honduras and Nicaragua - have also eliminated misleading information from cigarette packs, prohibiting the use of terms like "light", "mild", "low nicotine" or "low tar".

Nine countries have passed national 100 percent smoke-free laws or decrees: Uruguay, Panama, Guatemala, Colombia, Peru, Trinidad and Tobago, Honduras, Paraguay and Barbados. In addition, three countries have introduced such laws at a local level: Mexico, Brazil, and Venezuela.

In Punta del Este on Monday, the Global Smokefree Partnership, coordinated by the American Cancer Society and the Framework Convention Alliance, stated in a report that Latin America is spearheading the move towards smoke-free environments.

But with respect to advertising, only two countries have implemented a complete ban on advertising, promotion, and sponsorship of tobacco products, as called for by the Convention: Panama and Colombia.

Six other countries have adopted a ban on advertising that only excludes points of sale or the Internet: Brazil, Venezuela, Chile, Uruguay, Trinidad and Tobago, and Honduras.

The IAHF report warns of the risks of leaving loopholes in the bans, pointing out that advertising has increased, for example, at points of sale or through cell-phone messages to young people.

Most countries in the region have adopted policies to raise cigarette prices and taxes. Panama and Venezuela stand out in this respect, with real prices increasing more than 100 percent over the last three years.

Progress was also made in standing up to the tobacco industry's interference in negotiations on tobacco control policies.

Honduras and Colombia, for example, completely prohibited the participation of representatives of the tobacco industry in hearings or talks on the adoption of tobacco policies.

But governments have also run into hurdles. In Guatemala, Paraguay and Uruguay, for example, the state is facing lawsuits by the industry challenging the constitutionality of anti-tobacco laws.

Since Argentina signed the Convention in 2003, pressure from the industry on legislators from tobacco-growing provinces has stood in the way of its ratification.

As a compromise solution, the Senate passed a tobacco control bill in August that Schoj called "a good start."

"There is no substitute for the Convention, because it is an instrument of international cooperation that makes it possible to control cross-border advertising, but the Argentine bill isn't bad," she said.

The bill, which had unanimous support in the Senate, establishes 100 percent smoke-free environments, the mandatory use of pictorial health warnings on cigarette packs, and a total national ban on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship.

However, it has been lying dormant since August in the lower house of Congress, which is more vulnerable to industry lobbying. Schoj also blamed a lack of political will on the part of the governing coalition.

The arguments set forth by the tobacco-producing provinces, which do not want to lose a source of revenue and jobs, are refuted by activists, who say that although Argentina is a major producer of tobacco, it exports 80 percent of production, which means adoption of the Convention will not affect local growers or employment.

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