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Last Updated: Tuesday, 8 February, 2005, 18:26 GMT
Banning smoke in the land of Havanas
By Stephen Gibbs
BBC News, Havana

Step into any bar, restaurant or hospital in Havana, and you would be hard pushed to notice that Cuba has just followed the world in acting against smoking in public places.

Cuban women smoking cigars
Despite the new ban, cigarette sales to Cubans will still be subsidised
The published government resolution on the issue is uncompromising: no smoking in enclosed public buildings; no cigarettes to be sold within 100 metres of schools; all cigarette machines banned.

But so far, the reality has proved different.

In the tourist restaurants of old Havana, the ashtrays have been removed from some internal tables, and small hand-written "smoking area" signs put up.

Yet many people seem to be treating the new regulations with disdain.

As he drew on a Cuban "Hollywood" cigarette in the Café de Paris bar, Julio, a Cuban artist, told me that there were four things that he refused to give up in life: art, rum, women, and tobacco.

'Land of cigars'

Cubans are very used to having government involvement in almost every aspect of their lives.

The state dictates who can move house, buy a car or travel.

Can you imagine living in the best land in the world for cigars and being told you cannot smoke? It's insane
Pedro, former aircraft technician
But by threatening to delve into what many regard as the sacrosanct pleasure of smoking, the government has pushed the patience of some.

"There will be a lot of problems with this," said Pedro, a former aircraft technician.

"If I am at the bar with my beer and someone tells me I cannot smoke, I will go mad," he said.

"Can you imagine living in the best land in the world for cigars and being told you cannot smoke? It's insane."

But not all Cubans think it is a bad idea. Some approve.

"The smoke really bothers me," said Josefa Rodriguez, a cook at Havana's Calixto Garcia hospital.

Fidel Castro's eldest son, Fidelito, puffs away on a cigar (Archive picture)
Cigar smoking is still seen by many Cubans as a taste of the highlife
"People smoke in the kitchens, in the dining room, everywhere. Patients smoke in the wards. I don't like it. It's not correct."

Cuba has some of the best statistics in the world when it comes to public healthcare.

This country's infant mortality rate ranks with some of the richest countries.

Cuban life expectancy is 76.

Some believe that Fidel Castro, who is 78 and who gave up cigars almost 20 years ago, is determined to raise that figure, and has decided that an anti-smoking drive is the solution.

Mixed message

If so, he will be battling against a culture that is seriously ingrained in Cuban society.

It was in Cuba, after all, that in 1492, Columbus is believed to have first seen a tobacco leaf being smoked.

Moises Saab, a 57-year-old journalist, took up smoking when he was just 11 years old.

As he lights up a dark Cuban cigarette in his Havana apartment, he tells me that in the pre-revolutionary 1950s, that was not especially unusual.

"In my generation, we wanted to be grown up, to show off to the girls that we were big guys like the cowboys in the films. It was normal."

He voice, a deep baritone, betrays his two-packet-a-day habit.

There is more than an element of a mixed message in Cuba's anti-smoking drive.

While appealing to Cubans to consider the health risks of tobacco, this country not only produces millions of cigars each year, but also subsidises cigarette sales to its population.

Every Cuban over 50 is entitled to three packets of cigarettes a month, at approximately seven US cents a packet.

The government has indicated no intention to change that policy.

A sign, perhaps, that this rebel island will not be becoming a haven for non-smokers any time soon.

Cuba's smoking ban takes effect
07 Feb 05 |  Americas
Smoking curbs: The global picture
07 Feb 05 |  In Depth
Cuba's cigar crisis
14 Oct 02 |  Business
Smoking curbs: The global picture
16 Nov 04 |  In Depth
Q&A: Passive smoking
25 Nov 03 |  Medical notes


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