REYKJAVIK, Iceland — Iceland's smokers, subject since the start of the year to Europe's most stringent anti-smoking laws, now face the threat of a tobacco boycott by angry cigarette manufacturers.
What has irritated some international companies is a government plan to force them to cover the front of cigarette packets sold here with new, large health warnings, including illustrations of the dangers of smoking.
Pall Sigurdsson, director-general of the Health Ministry, said international tobacco companies had threatened to halt deliveries to this island of 250,000 people--half of them smokers--rather than go along with the new labels.
Strong Competition "Personally, I do not think they will stop sending tobacco to us as there is a strong competition in the field, but they have made verbal threats," Sigurdsson said.
Whatever the outcome, the tobacco firms have already won one battle. The government has postponed the introduction of the labels to July 1.
The new 1.1-by-1.5-inch labels will carry warnings by the chief medical officer of Iceland, such as, "Every year hundreds of Icelanders die from smoking," "Smoking increases the danger of heart attacks" and "Smoking endangers the health of mother and child."
But the most controversial aspects of the labels are drawings of areas of the human body depicted as affected by cigarette smoke, including the lungs and a fetus.
Cigarette packets sold in Iceland have so far carried only a printed warning on the bottom: "Cigarette smoking may be detrimental to health."
Iceland imports all its tobacco, and Health Ministry officials said foreign manufacturers had strongly protested the new labels, complaining they were too large and spoiled the cigarette packets' design.
Smoking Ban The labels are just one part of the island's tough, new anti-smoking laws introduced on Jan. 1.
Under the new rules, smoking is banned in most public places, including post offices, banks and any building housing a nursery, primary or secondary school.
Smoking is allowed in restaurants, although areas have to be set aside for non-smokers, but it is banned on all public transport, including internal flights.
Violators will be admonished at first, but if they ignore warnings they can be fined--and anyone refusing to pay could end up in jail. There was a previous ban on smoking in public places but it was vaguely worded and open to wide interpretation.
Health Minister Matthias Bjarnason said the aim of the new law was to protect non-smokers from inhaling tobacco smoke against their wills.
"I myself was a heavy cigarette smoker, but 14 years ago I stopped and since then I know from experience that it is a great nuisance for a non-smoker to stay among smokers and not be able to avoid dangerous fumes," he said.
Wider smoking bans may follow.
Regarded as Undemocratic Iceland's Occupational Safety Board has written to 2,000 private firms suggesting that they ban smoking at the workplace in order to uphold the rights of non-smokers.
Many smokers regard the new rules as undemocratic and tyrannical.
One teacher said that although he could not deny that smoking might be harmful, the ban in primary and secondary schools had turned teachers into second-class citizens who would be forced to smoke in secret, like adolescents.
Icelanders smoke some 440 million cigarettes a year, an average of 2,000 cigarettes per person, all sold through the state's tobacco monopoly.
Many Icelanders have criticized the contradiction between the state condemning smoking while earning profits from cigarette sales.
But the health minister defended the monopoly, saying it was preferable to allowing free trade in tobacco.