By RAUL GARCES, Associated Press Writer
MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay (AP) – Uruguayans are saying “adios” to tobacco smoke in the workplace, shopping malls and many other enclosed public spaces, thanks to a new law promoted by a local cancer specialist – who also happens to be the nation’s president.
The law, which went into effect Wednesday, aims to reshape the habits of as many as 1 million smokers in this small South American nation and penalizes lighting up in offices, shops, restaurants and other indoor areas.
Leftist President Tabare Vazquez, a practicing oncologist who saw patients even as he took office, had pushed for the law. Its implementation coincides with the first anniversary of his taking office.
The law authorizes Public Health Ministry inspectors to levy penalties of $1,000 or more on businesses where people smoke against the rules. Fines increase for repeat offenders, and businesses could even be shut down temporarily.
Anti-smoking groups estimate that as many as a third of Uruguay’s 3.4 million people smoke. Vazquez has cited reports suggesting about seven people die each day in Uruguay from smoking-related causes including lung cancer, emphysema and other illnesses.
Uruguay’s Congress passed the law late last year.
Vazquez noted that similar measures “have been implemented with success in many parts of the world,” citing smoke-free laws in Norway and New Zealand, among others.
But some smokers are already grumbling.
On Wednesday, even as no-smoking signs were going up in government offices and restaurants, some said the law was overly restrictive and among the toughest in Latin America.
“I either stop smoking or I now start eating in the street or the park,” said Roberto Enriquez, a middle-age civil servant, who said he normally smokes in restaurants on his lunch break.
“I smoke two packs a day,” Enriquez said as he enjoyed one of his last legal puffs in a state bank downtown before the law took effect.
At one pizza restaurant with a no-smoking sign, indoor tables were empty during the lunch-hour crush. But the restaurant’s sidewalk tables were full of patrons – many of them smokers – debating what would happen when cold weather forces them inside.
Though common in the United States, smoking restrictions are still relatively rare and mild south of the border. In some parts of Mexico, restaurants now are required to have a nonsmoking section, and Cuba last year restricted smoking – even cigars – in most public places. Jamaica and Bermuda are considering imposing limits.
Last month, Puerto Rican lawmakers also passed a tough law banning smoking in many public places, including in cars carrying passengers younger than 13. The U.S. Caribbean territory’s governor has promised to sign the bill, despite objections from some who say it could hurt tourism.
Patrick Reynolds, founder of the U.S.-based Foundation for a Tobaccofree Earth, praised Uruguay for joining other Latin American nations that have moved to curb smoking.
“There is no safe level of secondhand smoke,” Reynolds said. “It causes lung cancer and heart disease, and they’re involuntary smokers.”