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No smoking in Chile? No way.

Chileans are still the heaviest smokers in the region despite a strict anti-tobacco law.

SANTIAGO, Chile — When a strict anti-tobacco law came into effect three years ago, Maria Eugenia Avila scoffed. She had no intention of quitting the two packs a day she was delightfully smoking. She just stopped going to malls.

“I flee from places where I can’t smoke and I cover the horrible warnings on the packs. I love smoking and I suffer with this law and all its prohibitions. But no law is going to make me quit,” the 47-year-old kindergarten teacher said, while puffing away on a habit that costs her nearly $150 a month.

Three years into the tobacco-control legislation, Chileans are far from kicking the habit. Smoking among Chileans has remained fairly stable, dropping slightly from 42.6 percent in 2006, to 41.2 percent in 2008, with a perilous upward trend among women (currently 37.4 percent) and teenagers (35.4 percent, particularly females), according to the latest government survey on tobacco consumption.

This makes Chileans the heaviest smokers in the region. Another “smoker” country is Argentina, but it lags behind with smokers making up 30 percent of its population, according to the World Health Organization. Slightly more than 16 percent of Brazilians and about 19 percent of Mexicans smoke, while in the United States, 23 percent of the overall population are smokers.

After ratifying the Framework Convention for Tobacco Control, in August 2006, Chile enacted new legislation that set strict regulations on cigarette consumption, advertising and sales. Among other things, the new law banned tobacco advertising in the media, on .cl dominion websites and near schools. It also prohibited selling cigarettes to minors or within a 100-meter radius of schools.

The legislation also established mandatory smoking and non-smoking areas in restaurants and bars and prohibited all smoking in transportation services, schools, gas stations, elevators, health clinics, airports, theaters, gyms, supermarkets, malls and government offices. And lastly, it mandated that all cigarette packs should carry warnings that take up half of both sides.

But the law had several fundamental flaws. It didn't raise taxes on cigarette consumption, it did little in terms of prevention other than put warnings on cigarette packs, it failed to impose 100 percent smoke-free policies on all closed precincts and lacked treatment programs for quitters, said Maria Teresa Valenzuela, a tobacco expert at the University of Chile’s School of Medicine.

“The law didn’t include these things because of the enormous pressure from the tobacco industry, which was tremendously aggressive during the discussion of the bill. Its strategy was without a doubt to block any measures that could hinder tobacco consumption, especially raising taxes,” she said.

Chiletabacos, owned by British American Tobacco (BAT), virtually monopolizes the industry, controlling 96 percent of the market. It pays $600 million in tax revenues every year and several former cabinet ministers sit on its board of directors.