Will "civilized" Brazilians obey a new smoking ban?

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.”

The publicity campaign includes a downloadable no smoking sign in which the classic red circle with a line through it has been replaced with stylized map of Sao Paulo. But many doubt that in smaller towns around the state, or even poorer neighborhoods in the capital, the law will have much effect.

States and municipalities across Brazil have approached the Sao Paulo government for assistance in setting up their own similar bills, said a health department spokesman. The southern city of Curitiba in Parana state, approved a similar bill earlier this week.

One of the few exceptions to the law is for establishments devoted “specifically and exclusively” to serving tobacco. On tony Oscar Freire Street, the cigar spot Raineiri Pipes started serving food and drink about five years ago, and recently took over the pharmacy next door to open a live music space. Suddenly, it’s all a no-smoking zone.

“I think the law is correct, but is too radical,” said Beto Ranieri, one of the owners. “They need to have left a place for smokers. Tobacco is a legal product.” Stepping outside for a cigarette is one thing, he said — no one steps outside to smoke a cigar.

His client, Andre Molinari, 33, agreed. “I have two opinions of the law,” he said. “First, very good. You’re in a restaurant, you don’t want people smoking. It bothers you. Second, semi-stupid. A cigar should be OK. You don’t have dinner in a cigar shop if you don’t want to smoke.”

Ranieri may want to consider the route Esch Cafe, a nearby cigar bar and restaurant, took: It managed to get a temporary exception to the law, arguing that food and drink is secondary to the tobacco business. It should be interesting to hear Esch Cafe's lawyers reconcile that argument with the terms “specifically and exclusively,” but it has at least temporarily dodged a bullet.

The relatively nice weather does provide a bright side for smokers, who in places like New York and London often have to step out into the freezing cold, or even snow, to have a smoke. Even now in the middle of the southern winter, outdoor seating is ubiquitous. And for this first weekend of enforcement, the forecast is for mostly sunny skies and temperatures in the 70s. Perfect weather for acting civilized.