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Will "civilized" Brazilians obey a new smoking ban?

A new law in Brazil's biggest city bans smoking in public places. Will it be obeyed?

Alice Antunes (L) and Mariana Franco smoke and drink in the days before Sao Paulo state's strict anti-smoking law goes into effect. (Seth Kugel/GlobalPost)

SAO PAULO, Brazil — As part of a campaign to promote the state of Sao Paulo’s wide-reaching new “anti-smoking” regulations, an ad running on MTV Brazil shows a hip young couple trying to coax young Brazilians to obey the law.

“Laws like this one are common in many countries,” says the woman.

“And since we are also civilized people, we can also live very well with an anti-smoking law,” adds the man, an image of the Eiffel Tower behind him. “Do you agree?”

A batch of animated monsters speaking in helium-inflected voices shout “Yes!”

Legislating against ingrained habits is difficult anywhere in the world, but it is especially tough in Brazil, where finding ways around the law is a sort of national pastime. That might explain why residents of this state, Brazil’s most populous and richest by far, are being reminded that places like New York, London and Paris have similar laws. And if they can do it, why can’t we? Seriously, guys, we’re every bit as civilized as they are, right?

Only time will tell, but government education efforts have been massive. And Aug. 7 at the stroke of midnight, 500 state health inspectors will sweep through bars and restaurants across the 40 million person state, aided by municipal officers. The big question in many smokers' minds is whether the law will “stick,” which depends in part on how long and how hard the state will devote resources to it. Similar efforts after an ultra-strict national drinking and driving law was implemented largely faded away, although the government claims highway deaths have been permanently reduced. The Sao Paulo law is among the world’s strictest, covering just about all enclosed public spaces, including offices, malls and taxis as well as bars and restaurants. Business owners, not the smokers themselves, are subject to fines of up to about $800 for the first two offenses, and temporary shutdowns after that. The penalties got everyone’s attention: Many bar and restaurant owners began enforcing the law well in advance, just to be safe.

On Wednesday after work, that gave three Marlboro-smoking friends in their early 20s — Alice Antunes, Pedro Campana and Mariana Franco — a taste of what was to come. They wandered the area around Paulista Avenue, a central thoroughfare here, in search of a bar that would let them smoke. After four rejections, they landed at Charme da Paulista, where several dozen outdoor tables were filled with smokers. So they set up shop.

Antunes, an aspiring filmmaker, used a variety of Portuguese and English expletives to describe the law, before settling on “It sucks.” But like many smokers, she is more against what she considers the law’s Draconian details than its mere existence. “Every place should have a specific area for smokers,” she said — something the law forbids, even in offices. “This law is a campaign for people to stop smoking, but smokers will find a way.”