July 28, 2010 - Uruguay has promised to water down anti-smoking laws after pressure from the tobacco giant Philip Morris, prompting accusations of corporate bullying.
The government said it would amend legislation which slaps large health warnings on cigarette packets and bans the sale of those branded as "light". The government has said that any changes would be minor. Possible reforms might include reducing the size of health warnings from the current 80 percent of the packet's size to 65 percent, and giving permission to sell "light" cigarettes.
Uruguay was the first country in South America to ban smoking in enclosed public places. Exposure to secondhand smoke decreased greatly in indoor public places and workplaces in Montevideo, largest city, the capital, and the chief port of Uruguay, after the implementation of a national smoking ban in 2006. The overall nicotine reduction between 2002 and 2007 was 91%, and the greatest reductions were observed in schools (97%), the airport (94%), and the hospital (89%). (Reduction of secondhand tobacco smoke in public places following national smoke-free legislation in Uruguay, Adriana Blanco-Marquizo et al., Tob Control 2010;19:231-234, abstract..)Earlier this year Philip Morris, which sells Marlboro and other brands in more than 160 countries, filed for arbitration at the World Bank's international centre for settlement of investment disputes (ICSID), claiming the restrictions hurt its business and violated Uruguay's trade deal with Switzerland. The corporation is based in Lausanne, Switzerland. (FTR Holding S.A. (Switzerland), Philip Morris Products S.A. (Switzerland) and Abal Hermanos S.A. (Uruguay) v. Oriental Republic of Uruguay (ICSID Case No. ARB/10/7, Date Registered 3/26/2010)
The anti-tobacco laws, among the toughest in the world, were introduced four years ago by the then president, Tabaré Vázquez, who as an oncologist had seen the ravages of smoking-related cancer. Tobacco advertising and smoking in public buildings were also banned. Vázquez received an award from the World Health Organisation in 2006 for making the South American country, which has a population of 3.5 million, a leader in the fight against tobacco.
Uruguay: Philip Morris files first-known investment treaty claim against tobacco regulations by Luke Eric Peterson, 3/3/2010)
Uruguay's government yesterday said it would tweak the legislation, or possibly draft a new law, to fend off the complaint and comply with international trade obligations. "On some arguments, Uruguay is very strong from a legal point of view and changes aren't necessary. On other points, we need to make changes to the law or come up with a new law," the foreign affairs minister, Luis Almagro, said.
However, Vázquez, a leftist who completed his five-year term in March, accused the tobacco giant of "blackmailing" pressure. "The only thing that Philip Morris is trying to do is show its power over a small country that has set an international example on this issue," he said.
Eduardo Bianco, head of anti-smoking group the Centre for Investigation of the Tobacco Epidemic, said: "If the country gives way to this pressure, maybe this or some other multinational will try to use another [international] accord to challenge our ban on smoking in enclosed spaces or the advertising ban."
Philip Morris, which also makes L&M, Chesterfield and Virginia Slims, holds an estimated 15% of the international cigarette market outside of the US.
References: Uruguay bows to pressure over anti-smoking law amendments
Tobacco giant Philip Morris accused of corporate bullying following government's decision to water down legislation, Rory Carroll, Guardian.co.uk, 7/27/2010; Uruguay may change anti-smoking law due to complaint by Conrado Hornos, Reuters, 7/27/2010.