Costa Rica: Successful Media Campaign allows Tobacco Control Advocates to Overcome Years of Industry Interference
The tobacco industry often interferes with the legislative process, blocking or weakening proposed tobacco control measures in countries where it operates. Costa Rica has long been a key market for international tobacco companies operating in Latin America. British American Tobacco (BAT) in particular relies on the country as a manufacturing and distribution center for Central American markets and has a very strong presence in Costa Rica. For more than 40 years, tobacco companies like BAT have stunted tobacco control measures in Costa Rica through direct government interference, tobacco industry commissioned research, and youth focused anti-smoking campaigns that have been proven to be ineffective at best and even work to encourage kids to smoke.
In 2010, tobacco control partners launched a campaign to push for a comprehensive tobacco control law covering smoke-free areas, banning tobacco advertising and promotion, requiring graphic warning labels and raising tobacco taxes. At the same time, the tobacco industry continued to undermine strong public health efforts in the National Assembly, in the media and in the courts. Beginning in April 2010, the tobacco industry met with the Ministry of Health (MOH) as well as legislators known to be industry allies to discuss tobacco control legislation. Following the meeting a weakened version of the legislation began circulating in the MOH. Persistent public pressure and advocacy by tobacco control partners prevented passage of the weakened bill and in February 2012 a strong bill passed through the National Assembly.
The tobacco industry moved quickly to further delay enactment by the president. Shortly before the bill’s final approval, ten deputies, who had previously voted yes on the bill, challenged the constitutionality of the legislative process and content of the bill. As a result of the constitutional challenge, the Constitutional Court of Costa Rica granted a temporary injunction preventing passage of the tobacco control bill to the deputies. By using a procedure on "consulting the court on the constitutionality of a bill", the deputies were able to introduce the possibility of the Court suspending the passage or enactment of the legislation.
The Red National Anti-Tobacco Network (RENATA), a tobacco control advocacy group comprised of advocates from various governmental public health institutions and nongovernmental organizations, established itself as a strong leader during the renewed push for tobacco control legislation. RENATA worked closely with the consulting public relations agency, En-comunicación, to make the legislation a priority in parliament. Technical assistance was provided throughout by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids (CTFK).
Prior to the legislative vote, tobacco control partners conducted a comprehensive advocacy campaign that included direct lobbying by tobacco control partners, public demonstrations and a media strategy executed by En-Comunicación that highlighted the deadly effects of tobacco on the Costa Rican people. Activities included:
- Deputy Orlando Hernandez, the legislation’s champion, and RENATA held a press conference to expose the industry’s meeting with the MOH. The press conference served as the catalyst to end consideration of industry sponsored legislation.
- RENATA educated legislators about the importance of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) and Article 5.3, which protects against the partnerships between governments and the tobacco industry.
- As part of a paid media campaign, advocates placed ads at bus shelters depicting stories of disease caused by tobacco use. RENATA also installed 50 giant cigarettes, each displaying the story of a victim of tobacco use, near the Legislative Assembly
- RENATA held a press conference at the National Children’s Hospital detailing the impact of tobacco on children. The youth event achieved widespread press interest.
- RENATA installed a death clock at the Legislative Assembly to mark the tobacco-related death of a person every 2 hours and 40 minutes, the death toll in Costa Rica, reminding legislators of the urgent need to vote on the bill.
As a result of persistent monitoring of the bill’s progress through the Legislative Assembly, RENATA and En-Comunicación were able to respond promptly to the constitutional challenge to thwart industry interference. Activities included:
- RENATA developed a brief for the Constitutional Court providing counter-arguments in support of the constitutionality of the law
- Members of RENATA, the Ministry of Health, the National Cancer Network, the Social Security Fund (CCSS), the Institute on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse (IAFA), public and private universities, members of the National Assembly and victims of tobacco use organized in front of the Supreme Court, calling for the Constitutional Court to resolve the consultation quickly
- By creating a media campaign relaying the stories of tobacco victims, including the harmful effects on children, RENATA and En-Comunicación appealed to public interest and were well received by the press, resulting in widespread media coverage throughout the process
- RENATA and En-Comunicacion’s efforts changed the national debate. An example of this success is in the change in attitude of government officials who in 2010 met privately with the tobacco industry and who by 2011 openly rejected such meetings due to Article 5.3 of the FCTC
- On March 20, 2012 the Supreme Court ruled that the “General Law on Tobacco Control and its Harmful Effects on Health” does not violate constitutional requirements
On March 22, 2012 the President of the Republic of Costa Rica signed the “General Law on Tobacco Control and its Harmful Effects on Health,” establishing the following regulations:
- 100% smoke-free spaces
- Restrictions on advertising, sponsorship and promotion
- Sale of packs of no less than 20 cigarettes
- Tax of 20 cents per cigarette
- Graphic health warnings on cigarette packs covering 50% of the front and back of the pack