The Framework Convention Alliance for Tobacco Control

Preparedness and perseverance secure strong tobacco control law in Costa Rica

CostaRica Pres signs lawCosta Rican President, Laura Chinchilla (centre), signs the tobacco control law on 22 March. (c) RENATABy Patricia Sosa, Director, Latin America programs, CTFK

On 22 March 2012, President Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica signed into law comprehensive tobacco control legislation, including strong smoke-free policies, advertising and marketing bans, pictorial warning labels and a higher tobacco tax.

Tobacco control legislation was first introduced into Costa Rica's National Assembly in 2009. At that time, the bill contained the strongest tobacco control language to date in Latin America.

Despite public opinion polls conducted that year showing that 94 percent of Costa Ricans supported all key provisions in the bill, and initial sponsorship of it by 49 of 54 members of Congress, it has taken nearly three years for this strong tobacco control law to become reality.

The reasons for delay can be directly attributed to aggressive and relentless tobacco industry efforts to undermine the bill. Likewise, success is owed to a coalition of local tobacco control advocates coordinated by the Red Nacional Antitabaco (RENATA) which, with public relations firm En-Comunicación, and support from the international tobacco control community, built momentum and gained support for the bill.

RENATA's willingness and ability to react to industry schemes resulted in a strong tobacco control law that will help protect Costa Rica's more than 4.5 million citizens.

The campaign took courage. RENATA was fearless in exposing tobacco industry involvement: following a meeting in April 2010 between the Minister of Health, tobacco industry officials and legislators with a record of supporting tobacco industry interests, weak legislation began circulating in the Ministry of Health. In reaction, Deputy Orlando Hernandez, the bill's champion at the time, and RENATA held a press conference to expose this meeting, receiving wide media coverage and, most importantly, stopping any further consideration of the weak legislation.

The campaign was also creative. In the time between the bill's introduction and its passage, RENATA, in partnership with En-Comunicación, designed and conducted at least five different timely and effective earned media campaigns. For example, when the Social Issues Commission was considering voting for a weak tobacco control bill, they placed 50 giant cigarettes covered with faces and stories from victims, relatives, nurses and doctors at the entrance of the Legislative Assembly.

In collaboration with the Mayor of San Jose, they also placed posters in 100 bus stops throughout the capital city, telling personal stories of victims of tobacco use and calling for legislators to vote in support of the bill. When the legislation was again under consideration, they placed a giant "death watch" at the entrance of the Assembly to illustrate to legislators the consequences of not authorising effective tobacco control legislation.

Finally, the campaign involved diligence. Through daily tracking of the legislation's progress in Congress, extensive review of Congressional documents, a legal battle in favour of the law's constitutionality and countless other efforts, the coalition captured media attention and kept the tobacco industry's efforts to weaken the legislation on the front page of newspapers. In addition, they built a coalition of passionate advocates who on a number of occasions were willing, within a couple of hours notice, to show up in the Legislative Assembly to stop legislators from voting on a bad proposal.

Ultimately, signing of the tobacco control bill involved a tireless battle. The efforts of RENATA, En-Comunicación and the international tobacco control community ensured that the public health of the people of Costa Rica emerged as the winner in one of the most intense and creative legislative battles in Latin America for the passage of legislation enabling the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC).

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