What reporters aren't getting about Mexico City's no-smoking law
By José Fernández Ramos Original Print Publication: February, 2009
First, let's look at the glass half-full: the no-smoking law passed by the Mexico City Congress comes into effect this month, and aims to protect the rights of those of us who, like it or not, have to breathe other people's fumes.
A similar, federal proposal is being considered by local Congresses around the country.
In theory, we will no longer have to eat in restaurants where customers at the next table are blowing smoke at our grilled salmon. You won't get suffocated at packed bars either.
Now, for the glass half-empty: some columnists, newspaper editors, and radio and television hosts have been using their smoking pens (and cameras, and microphones) to cry "discrimination!" A small group even called a press conference to announce they will take the smoking ban to court.
They claim the new law infringes on their right to smoke. Sure, they have the right to poison their lungs, but that shouldn't come at the expense of other people's health.
What are their real motivations? Some analysts speculate that the powerful tobacco lobby is pulling strings, but I don't think so. I suspect that these folks are just feeling some of the same anguish a nicotine addict experiences during a five-hour flight.
It is true that tobacco is a powerful industry, constantly seeking to penetrate and conquer new markets, particularly in emerging economies as tougher regulations are imposed in developed nations.
Philip Morris, the largest global tobacco company, just disassociated its international operations from its US holding company to free itself from regulations in the US and Europe and expand to less complicated and more profitable emerging markets. The new business entity, Philip Morris International, ranks as the third most profitable consumer goods company in the world, after Procter & Gamble and Nestlé. In Mexico, Phillip Morris used to own 50 percent of the company's local operations, with Carlos Slim holding the other half. Just recently it increased its participation to 80 percent: Slim, who rarely misses a good business opportunity, sold them 30 percent for $1.1 billion USD.
Since tobacco advertising is forbidden in Mexico's mass media, tobacco companies are reinventing their marketing strategies, switching to direct advertising and often breaking other laws. For example, underage school kids get invitations to parties sponsored by tobacco companies. They also receive cigarette ads on their cell phones, home phones, and e-mail. The database of a private school in Mexico City was used not long ago to reach kids at their homes. The companies aren't missing their target: 27.5 percent of Mexican teens are frequent smokers, and the rate has been growing steadily over the past six years.
The World Health Organization recommends increasing taxes as an effective measure to reduce consumption, but education programs and publicity restrictions are also necessary. In Mexico, the tax rate for cigarettes is now 150 percent, 10 percent higher than last year and 40 percent higher than three years ago. Government statistics reveal that the monthly household expenditure on cigarettes has increased from $175 MXP in 2000 to $216 MXP in 2006. Poor families allocate as much as 11 percent of their income to cigarettes: no wonder Philip Morris continues to attract investors.
Meanwhile, 16 million Mexicans are smoking; the habit is linked to 60,000 annual deaths, and drains the public coffers of $3 billion USD in health-related costs every year. This is all to say that the tobacco debate goes much deeper than the rights of a few journalists and legislators who like to smoke. Speaking of smoke, it will be interesting to see what the smoking pens say if a proposal to allow people to carry and smoke up to three grams of marijuana is approved by the Mexico City Congress. Will they find the pot-filled air comforting?
José Fernández Ramos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.