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Mexico moves to ban smoking and vaping in most public spaces

As Mexico City strengthens existing regulations prohibiting tobacco use on iconic streets in the Historic Center, President López Obrador aims to ban the bad habit in several public settings, from outdoor concerts and sporting events to parks and beaches.

MEXICO CITY (CN) — Federal and Mexico City authorities are cracking down on smoking in public places by both issuing new regulations and ramping up enforcement on others already in the books. 

The Mexico City government announced on Monday that it would firmly impose restrictions from a 2008 law that designate certain public spaces as areas 100% free of tobacco smoke and emissions. 

The announcement listed 11 streets and plazas in the city’s Historic Center where the law is now strictly enforced, including the pedestrian street Francisco I. Madero, the walkways surrounding the Templo Mayor ruins, and the Zócalo, or main city square. 

Despite new signage informing citizens and visitors of the new enforcement on Francisco I. Madero Street, most who spoke with Courthouse News on Friday were still unaware of the new life in the old rules. 

“Mexico is a very sui generis country where, despite laws and regulations, people love to find ways around them, and unfortunately they aren’t obeyed like in other countries,” said Miguel Ángel Toscano, co-founder and executive director of Refleacciona con Responsabilidad, a nonprofit that works to raise awareness of Mexico’s tobacco regulations and influence people and businesses to comply.

“What’s happening in the Zócalo already happens in Singapore, it happens in Japan, it happens in New Zealand, Australian and California,” he said in a phone interview. “What Mexico City is doing is a huge step forward for the city and the country.”

Óscar Pérez began smoking when he was 16. He is now 22 and smokes about a half a pack a day.

“In high school there was a street stall selling sodas, cookies and stuff, and of course loose cigarettes, and I’d always smoke a couple cigarettes after school,” he said as he smoked on Madero Street, less than 20 yards away from one of the new signs.

“My friend would scold me and tell me not to smoke, that it’ll kill me and all. And I’d be like, Come on, let me die in peace. Life is stressful,” he said.

An array of cigarettes for individual sale hangs among the magazines, candy and other products at a street stall in Mexico City's Historic Center. The sale of loosies is illegal in Mexico, but the law is not enforced. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

Selling loose cigarettes is illegal in Mexico, but street stalls on corners all over the city readily sell one-off smokes to nearly anyone with five or six pesos (25-30 cents). 

“The tobacco industry wants cigarettes to continue being sold on the fringes of the law like this because it’s a way to hook young people,” said Toscano, of Refleacciona. “But this is also prohibited by law and should be sanctioned by health authorities.”

Nonsmoker Julio Cruz was visiting the capital from the neighboring state of Hidalgo on a shopping trip with his teenage daughter. Neither was initially aware of the new enforcement.

“Smoking makes some people uncomfortable and is harmful to those who don’t smoke, so it’s good that they’re regulating it like that,” he said. 

While a group of around 20 employees of the city’s Health Protection Agency were on Madero Street Friday to raise awareness of the enforcement and ensure that businesses comply, none were allowed to comment on how the project is going. Courthouse News’ request for comment from the agency was not returned by the time of publication. 

People like Cruz and his daughter are the ones that Refleacciona aims to protect with its awareness campaigns.

Citing Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography, the organization says it works to protect the 14.9 million people in Mexico who do not use tobacco but are exposed to smoke, many of them minors. 

“There is a general lack of knowledge about the tobacco law. It’s not clear what rights people have as nonsmokers,” said Toscano. “We’re in a country where nine out of 10 of us don’t smoke, but unfortunately, those who do impose upon others in the places where they smoke.”

Employees of Mexico City's Health Protection Agency prepare to verify compliance of the new tobacco law enforcement on the Francisco I. Madero pedestrian avenue. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

According to Mexico’s National Institute of Public Health, just over 15% of the Mexican population uses tobacco, about 14.8 million people. That percentage is 17.9% among adults, and 5.7% of adolescents aged 10 to 19 smoke or vape. The overall rate is slightly higher than that in the United States, where 12.5% of the population uses tobacco, according to the CDC

Rosario Hernández, director of health and well-being programs at Refleacciona con Responsabilidad, said that the new enforcement should eventually lead to more people taking the tobacco law seriously. First infractions for smoking in prohibited areas will be given a warning, but repeat offenders will be ticketed and fined.

“Now the regulations are going to be binding, and this will increase public awareness,” she said.

More regulation is expected later this month when President López Obrador is set to issue the final version of his executive order to reform the country’s tobacco law. The public comment period for the order ends on June 23, and a final version will be published not long after that. 

The reform will be very clear on where smoking and vaping are prohibited, aiming to ban them not only on streets but also in outdoor concerts and sporting events, public parks and even on Mexico’s beaches. 

Toscano wants it to include an all-out ban on vaping products as well, considering the harm the plastic and batteries of vaping devices do to the environment in addition to the health risks. Ultimately, he would like to see legislation that codifies these regulations into law. 

“Eventually, these products should be regulated harshly. I believe that prohibition is the solution,” he said.

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