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Children often end up as second-hand smokers
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Tobacco Regulations as Solid as Smoke
By Diego Cevallos

Widespread cigarette advertising and the freedom to smoke in public -- including in hospitals and schools -- continue in most Latin American countries.

MEXICO CITY, Jun 2 (Tierramérica).- Government funds to fight tobacco use in Latin America, which kills one million people each year, pale compared to the health costs of this epidemic and receive only a small part of the tax revenues from the tobacco industry.

Most countries in the region violate their own commitments to ban tobacco advertising and to prohibit smoking in public places, especially hospitals and schools.

Eliminating cigarette ads and imposing hefty taxes on the tobacco industry are the best ways to reduce consumption, recommends the World Health Organization (WHO) in its Report on the Global Tobacco Epidemic 2008.

Based on data from more than 150 countries, the document shows that tax revenues from tobacco sales around the world are 500 times greater than the amount spent on fighting tobacco addiction, which is a cause of deadly diseases.

Studies obtained by Tierramérica correspondents and statistics from the WHO indicate that, in Latin America, Venezuela and Brazil have the highest national annual budgets to fight tobacco use, at about 4.6 million dollars each. The lowest in the region is Paraguay, with just 33,830 dollars.

Venezuela takes in 634 million dollars in tobacco taxes each year, and Brazil about 1.1 billion. Paraguay's tobacco tax revenues reach 12 million dollars.

In Chile, a Latin American leader in regulating and banning consumption of tobacco, the anti-smoking budget is around one million dollars, while tobacco tax income is about 1.2 billion. The health costs of smoking cost the Chilean government 1.14 billion dollars a year.

Among the most permissive is Argentina, with 1.45 billion dollars in tobacco tax revenues, some 550 million more than what it spends on fighting tobacco use. Unlike its neighbors, this country has no national law on the matter, while the harm tobacco causes its citizens costs 2.2 billion dollars a year.

Mario Virgolini, coordinator of the Argentine Health Ministry's tobacco regulation program, told Tierramérica that the difference between tobacco tax revenues and expenditures for the health impacts of smoking "clearly show that it costs society more to deal with the disease than to avoid consumption." "The greatest cost, which is immeasurable, is the 40,000 deaths per year caused by tobacco" in Argentina, he said.

Uruguay has won recognition from the WHO as the first country in the Americas and the third in the world to ban smoking in enclosed spaces and work areas, without exception. The national measures have been in place since 2006.

In the opinion of Luz Reynales, head of tobacco research at Mexico's National Public Health Institute, the region's nations must be "stronger" when it comes to taxes on the tobacco industry.

"Higher taxes are needed to obtain sufficient resources to attack the epidemic," Reynales told Tierramérica.

Through its tobacco taxes, Mexico takes in 2 billion dollars a year, but spends 3 billion on prevention programs and health-related costs.

Tax as a percentage of the sale price of cigarettes varies in Latin America and the Caribbean from 70 percent in Uruguay and Venezuela, and two percent in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

The WHO has calculated that an additional 10-percent hike in cigarette prices could cut consumption by four percent. If the price went up 70 percent, it would prevent a quarter of the approximately 5.4 million deaths reported annually that are associated with smoking.

Most Latin American countries have ratified the WHO's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, in force since February 2005.

The pact prohibits advertising and sponsorship by cigarette companies of any activity, and discourages industry interference in public health policies, bans tobacco companies from contacting youth, and establishes smoke-free public spaces.

However, the WHO's 2008 report reveals that in the Americas there is a severe problem of non-compliance.

Of the 35 countries studied by the WHO, just nine ban tobacco ads on the radio and broadcast television, and only three (Bahamas, Brazil and Chile) prohibit advertising in their newspapers and magazines.

The study did not include that Uruguay in March enacted a ban on advertising in any media, except the Internet.

On local Internet portals, tobacco ads are banned in Brazil and Chile. Billboards and signs for cigarettes are banned in public areas in the Bahamas, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Uruguay and Venezuela.

Aside from the Bahamas, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Guatemala, Uruguay and Venezuela, the rest of the countries in the region allow the distribution of advertising by mail and other media. Only in Chile and Uruguay is it prohibited to show images of tobacco brands on television programs and in films.

Tobacco companies are banned from sponsoring public events in the Bahamas, Brazil, Canada, Chile and Uruguay.

Freedom to smoke in hospitals and in schools continues in 21 countries in the Americas, and in 26 there are no smoking regulations for government buildings.

The Pan-American Health Organization's online system for tobacco information reports that the industry continues to offer cigarettes free to students.

In 2003, nearly 11 percent of young Argentines said they had received free cigarettes from tobacco companies. In Chile, the portion was 8.6 percent and in Ecuador 11 percent in 2001, according to the information system.

In Mexico, 10 percent of young people reported being offered free cigarettes in 2005, and in Brazil 7.8 percent in 2006.

* Diego Cevallos is an IPS correspondent. Reporting contributed by Daniela Estrada (Chile), Humberto Márquez (Venezuela) and Marcela Valente (Argentina).

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