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Up next for Mexico City: New limits on smoking

The World

June 29, 2007|Sam Enriquez and Cecilia Sanchez | Times Staff Writers

MEXICO CITY — Sure, the dateline says Mexico City, but this place is turning more San Francisco every day. City lawmakers this year have legalized abortion and same-sex civil unions.

Next up? A ban on smoking in restaurants, schools, taxis and buses.

The city assembly's health committee this week unanimously supported smoking restrictions, following the lead of most U.S. cities and joining a parade of formerly puff-happy countries, including Britain and France.

The Mexico City ban will come up for a vote before the full assembly in the fall. And unlike the partisan fight over abortion, this one looks like a slam dunk.

"When change is needed, we do it," said Marco Antonio Garcia Ayala, head of the assembly's health committee. "To us, there is nothing more important than fighting nicotine addiction and the diseases that it brings."

Credit or blame goes to city administrations from the left-leaning Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, which is steering the capital against the conservative tide of Mexico's Roman Catholic culture.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, leader of the PRD and mayor until his unsuccessful bid for president last year, initiated welfare for seniors, disabled persons and single mothers. His successor, Marcelo Ebrard has legalized abortion and civil unions. On the legislative drawing board is a bill to allow euthanasia.

The smoking ban proposal takes on King Nicotine in a city where it is just that. The Mexico City department of health reports that about a fifth of the capital's 9 million residents are daily smokers, with 150 dying from lung cancer every day.

"We have to work out a bold way of protecting the health of residents," said Laura Pina Olmedo, a member of the health commission. "We need to create spaces that are 100% free of smoke."

A smoking ban in Mexico City would have been unheard of even a few years ago. The world's second-richest man, Carlos Slim Helu, is a Mexican who kick-started his $50-billion empire with a Marlboro franchise; children barely counter-high can buy smokes; and a post-meal cigarette with coffee is customary. Single cigarettes sell for 2 pesos at corner newsstands. Even doctors smoke.

"It'd be a shame. After a good meal, there's nothing like a cigarette," said Alfredo Cardenas, 33, an architect. "I'll never quit smoking."

A 2000 ban on smoking in federal buildings, including the Mexican Congress, led to lawsuits by angry lawmakers. Smoking has been banned at hospitals and airports for at least 15 years, but restaurants and bars remain smokers' sanctuaries.

Restaurants here were forced in 2003 to set aside non-smoking areas, which, in practice, do about as much good as they did during their short tenure in Southern California restaurants.

Public health was a small concern among restaurants owners in the upscale Polanco district who said Thursday that they were worried that the smoking ban would depress sales.

"It seems to me they're doing this without thinking," said Genaro Ortiz Lucas, manager of Mi Viejo restaurant. "The only thing they'll win out of this is closing restaurants. Half my clients smoke, and if I have to tell them they can't, we run the risk of chasing them away."

But restaurants and other businesses will have a strong incentive to comply. Under the proposed law, restaurants could face fines as high as $2,200 if they allow smoking. Taxi and bus drivers could be fined $150.

Scofflaw smokers won't face any fines under the measure.

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sam.enriquez@latimes.com

Carlos Martinez of The Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.

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