South Florida Sun-Sentinel
February 8, 2005

Island huffs over puffing ban

It's no longer OK to light up just anywhere
By Tracey Eaton
The Dallas Morning News

HAVANA · Once a smoker's paradise, Cuba has banned smoking in stores, theaters, meeting halls and other public places.

And longtime smokers in this island nation are fuming about the new rules, which took effect Monday.

"They can't take this away from me. I'll kill them," said Graciela Gonzalez, 80, clutching a fat cigar.

"This is my life."

Smoking is widely accepted in Cuba, where at least a third of the population lights up. With the new restrictions, Cuban officials hope to change people's thoughts about smoking and save lives.

It's an uphill fight in a country that sells cigarettes for as little as 8 cents a pack, cheaper than anywhere else in the world.

Cuban President Fidel Castro was a walking advertisement for tobacco, his nation's third largest export, until he abruptly gave up cigars in 1985.

In recent years, Cuban health officials have become increasingly concerned about smoking, which is linked to thousands of deaths per year on the island.

They're also worried about the rising popularity of the habit among younger Cubans.

Teenagers hid their vices in the 1960s and '70s, but now many flaunt it, said Pedro de la Hoz, a longtime smoker.

"Today you see kids smoking right out in the open outside their schools. In my day, I didn't dare smoke at school," said de la Hoz, a Havana music critic.

The Cuban government unwittingly hooked much of the populace decades ago when it began including cigarettes in the monthly ration of foodstuffs it sells at subsidized rates.

The program allowed adults to buy packs of unfiltered smokes for just two Cuban pesos, or less than eight cents.

Hoping to reduce the number of new smokers without enraging those who already were addicted, officials a few years ago said that only people born before 1955 qualified for the cut-rate cigarettes.

Still, even unsubsidized cigarettes remain cheap -- just 27 cents a pack.

The new rules will prohibit smoking "in all enclosed or air-conditioned locales open to the public," including taxis, trains, buses, theaters, meeting halls and other public places.

Restaurants and bars are not specifically singled out in the regulations, and authorities haven't made clear how they'll be affected. Nor have they said how they'll enforce the ban at popular tourist haunts.

"I dread trying to make this thing work," said a security chief at La Bodeguita del Medio, a restaurant-bar and former Ernest Hemingway watering hole in Old Havana. "Someone's going to have to tell people not to smoke. It's not going to be me. I'll delegate that to someone else."

The crackdown also prohibits cigarette sales to children younger than 16 and within 100 yards of schools.

Omar Sandoval, 58, a Havana smoker who makes a living posing for pictures while chomping on a cigar, said the rules make sense.

"Smoking is no good for human beings," he said. "I know that it bothers people who don't smoke."

Others agree, but say the ban won't make them stop smoking.

"People who smoke will always find a way," said one woman who has rolled cigars for a living for 37 years.

"I'm not going to quit. I'll just sneak it when I need a cigarette."

Quitting is tough, said Alain Brooks, 26, a Havana electrician who has managed to stop puffing only once -- after a throat operation.

"I picked up the habit again within a month," he said.

Cigarettes are as addictive as "heroin, cocaine and crack," said Roger Aveyard, a Nebraska doctor who wrote a guide on how to quit.

"It kind of takes over the brain," said the doctor, who quit after he became so hooked he smoked in the shower.

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