Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

The Hard Task of Protecting People’s Health Against their Will

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Three years ago, Colombia passed the Anti-Smoking Law, against the desperate cries of restaurant and bar owners who insisted that this would harm their businesses, that people wouldn’t return, that they’d lose customers. Smokers also raised their voices against this law, stating it went against their individual freedom and expression of their personality and their ability to chose as adults what they’d like to do. Other countries like Costa Rica are now signing their own Anti-tobacco laws, and echoes of the arguments heard in Colombia can also be found in Costa Rica. As a former smoker who experienced the effects of this law both in Colombia and Costa Rica, I’d say that the Anti-smoking law was the best thing that happened to my health and my pocketbook, and I’m not the only one.

On May 21st, 2010, this editorial was published in the El Tiempo newspaper on the impact of the Anti-Smoking law in Colombia:

From having one of the most lax set of laws on the planet about cigarette control, in just two years Colombia became a nation with one of the most advanced policies on the subject. Today, the prohibition of smoking inside enclosed public spaces enjoys widespread acceptance among citizens and even among the owners of commercial establishments who at first opposed the project due to fears of losing their clientele.

I started smoking as an adult: For the next decade my consumption waxed and waned only to increase once more: I’d stop smoking for a while, only to pick it up again. I’d go to bars full of smoke so adding my own to the mix didn’t require much effort. I would drink coffee with my friends and buy single cigarettes to go with it. It was a physical and psychological addiction. Going home after a night out would require immediate showering and the banishing of all my clothes to somewhere outside my room so I wouldn’t have to smell the smoke on my clothes and hair. When the anti-tobacco law was passed while I was living in Colombia, the temptation to light up was still there, but they had made it that much harder to cave into it. To smoke, I’d have to interrupt what I was doing or the conversation I was having to head outside, rain or shine and light up. Coffee with a cigarette was no longer offered as an option in the coffee shops. And I began to smoke less often. One day I went dancing and when I got home and was shedding my clothing outside my room I suddenly realized that I no longer needed to do so: my clothes still smelled of the perfume I had sprayed on before heading out. I eventually stopped smoking without even having to try and I thank the law for it.

In Spain, where an anti-smoking law also passed, health authorities discovered that within the first few months, there was an increase of 15% in people going to centers or programs to stop smoking. At the same time, they also received reports from patients that they were relapsing much less frequently into smoking, since the social environment was more conducive to quitting.

After being smoke-free for two years, I returned to Costa Rica. My old friends still smoked and I joined them in hazy bars and restaurants. It might sound counter-intuitive, but I started smoking again because I hated to feel bathed in secondhand smoke: I wanted to be the author of my downfall and not a victim. I didn’t think much of it until I saw movement in social networks to push the anti-tobacco law. Although I was still a smoker, I backed them whole-heartedly. I knew that quitting would be easy once I wouldn’t be tempted to smoke in bars and clubs. But the law was a long time coming. So I quit without it and paid the social price: I stopped going out at night, avoiding the bars where I would feel compelled to light up. I sat far away from smokers in restaurants. I didn’t hang out with my smoking friends much any more. More than one year after I stopped smoking, the law was finally passed in Costa Rica.

At once someone filed an action of anti-constitutionality against the law because it imposed unreasonable restrictions. My friends who still smoked complained that bars were no longer fun, that not being able to smoke at work was unbearable and they repeated many of the arguments I had heard in Colombia, that they were adults and there should be places designated for them to smoke. Those who smoke are the ones most set against this law, inconsiderate of the negative effects their smoking has on others, in particular those who work in bars, restaurants and clubs and who have to breathe in the smoke every day, all day at work. But I am hopeful for the changes this law will bring to Costa Rica. Two months have passed since the law, and one of my friends is already trying to quit.

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