Caribbean’s toughest smoking ban coming to Puerto Rico

San Juan, Puerto Rico – Night after night for almost seven years Loraine Cardona inhaled clouds of acrid cigar and cigarette smoke at the Diamond Palace Casino in Condado, San Juan’s hip tourist district. A supervisor at the blackjack tables, Cardona wheezed though bouts of bronchitis, pneumonia and asthma, while players puffed into the wee hours of the night.

„If there were seven players in front of me, four of them would be smoking. It was as if I were smoking four cigarettes at once,“ said Cardona, 34. „My skin smelled like nicotine.“

The smoke hung so heavy that managers at the Diamond Palace took a gamble of their own and banned smoking six months ago. In March, however, all of the island’s restaurants, bars and its 17 other casinos will follow the Diamond’s suit. Touted as the Caribbean’s toughest smoking ban, Puerto Rico’s „clean air act“ not only prohibits smoking in enclosed public areas, but also in private cars carrying children under 13 and in open-air terraces or outdoor bars with one or more employees.

Puerto Rico’s governor signed the law into effect earlier this year over the objections of some in the USD 3 billion tourist industry, who feared it might turn away tourists. In 2005, Floridians made up 17 percent of Puerto Rico’s 1.3 million U.S. tourists who stay in hotels, the only group officials track by residence. Another 2.3 million visitors arrived on cruise ships, or stayed with relatives last year.

Studies suggest tourism officials may not have much to fear from the smoking ban. The University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research found that sales at Florida restaurants increased by 7 percent after the state’s smoking ban went into effect in 2003. A July 2006 report examined sales tax receipts in New York City and New York State between 1999 and 2004 and found that city and statewide smoking bans had no financial impact on bars and restaurants.

In San Juan, even smokers were not fuming over the ban.

Maria Teresa Martinez, who puffed on a cigarette one recent evening while sitting on a planter outside the Diamond Hotel and Casino, said she was initially annoyed by the casino’s smoking ban but did not stay away.

„I know it bothers people inside,“ said Martinez, 45. „It hurts me, too, but that’s my decision.“

Jose Velez, who relishes Puerto Rican-made stogies during cigar tasting sessions with friends, said he thinks the smoking ban is too far reaching and should not include open-air terraces or outdoor bars. For Velez and his friends, smoking is a ritual, he said.

„We respect how the cigar is made; we study and sample the mix,“ Velez, 35, said. „It’s more than blowing smoke. We were a little sad because we don’t have spaces to get together and talk and smoke.“

The legislation was not prompted by high smoking rates on the island. In fact, only 13 percent of adults smoke in Puerto Rico, making it the third lowest rate in the United States. Only Utah, with 11 percent, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, with 9 percent, have lower rates. In Florida 22 percent of adults smoke.

Still, smoking related illnesses cost Puerto Rico USD 1.1 billion in lost productivity and health care expenses, said Antonio Cases, director of the Tobacco Control and Prevention Division of Puerto Rico’s Health Department.

„It is estimated that 10 Puerto Ricans die each day from smoking related diseases,“ Cases said. „In terms of health costs each year it is estimated that both the private and public sector spend USD 560 million treating it.“

And there is good news for bar or casino workers like Cardona who have inhaled secondhand smoke for years.

Last month a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed a 26 percent decline in the number of bar workers in Scotland who experienced respiratory problems such as coughing or shortness of breath only one month after that country’s smoking ban took effect. The decrease jumped to 32 percent after two months.

It’s not clear how vigorously Puerto Rico’s smoking ban will be enforced. Health inspectors could issue fines between USD 250 and USD 2,000 for violations they find in bars and restaurants during routine inspections and surprise visits, Cases said.

Police officers could issue fines from USD 25 to USD 200 to smokers with a passenger under 13 in the car. However Cases said Puerto Rico’s anti-smoking campaign will focus on education.

„The best enforcers of laws like these are not necessarily policemen or health inspectors but the people themselves,“ Cases said. „As long as they know their rights, their right to breathe fresh air, they are going to be the best enforcers.“