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Puerto Vallarta News NetworkEditorials | Opinions | September 2009 

Mexico's Hypocritical Tobacco Laws vs. Allowed Drug Use
email this pageprint this pageemail usBernd Debusmann Jr. - Drug War Chronicle
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September 23, 2009

Are Mexico’s police and health officials – already burdened by a war on drugs, high levels of crime and an H1N1 flu epidemic – to be further tasked with enforcing restrictions on an extremely widespread habit?
Last month, the Mexican government adopted a law that decriminalizes the possession of small amounts of drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, and heroin. In doing so, Mexico became the latest of a string of countries to eliminate criminal penalties for the individual user, thereby shifting the emphasis from punishment to treatment. With this change in policy, Mexico joins Colombia, Argentina, Spain and Portugal, all of which have taken similar steps.

The change was lauded as progressive by many experts on the “war on drugs.” For example, Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, wrote in The New York Times that the policy change (and lack of serious American response) signals that both governments are coming “to the conclusion that the criminalization of drug possession typically does more harm than good.”

Little attention, however, has been paid to the fact that as far as tobacco is concerned, the Mexican government is going in the opposite direction.

Over the last several years, the Mexican government has become increasingly harsh and restrictive in terms of anti-smoking regulations. In February 2008, the Mexican Senate approved a law that banned the smoking of tobacco in workplaces, as well as public buildings and transportation. Mexico City’s legislature took it a step further, modifying a standing regulation which allowed for special smoking areas in bars and restaurants. The new law bans smoking completely. Additionally, new health warnings were added to packs of cigarettes and street vendors were banned from legally selling individual cigarettes – a common practice in a country of poor people.

Both laws have been applauded by those who consider drug and tobacco usage to be public health problems. Like drugs, there is no denying that tobacco usage is a serious threat to public health in Mexico. Every year thousands of Mexicans die from diseases related to tobacco smoking. Reports indicate that children, sometimes as young as ten years old, smoke regularly. But while the new law concerning illegal narcotics highlights the recognition that enforcing regulations on personal consumption is nearly impossible, the recent regulations on tobacco use seem to ignore that fact.

Tobacco has a long history in Mexico. As Allan Wall wrote in in February 2008, tobacco was used by the Maya, and “an Aztec goddess known as Cihuacoahuatl was portrayed as having a body of tobacco.” Tobacco products have been widely used in Mexico in modern times as well, and the practice of smoking cigarettes is deeply embedded in society. Small wonder that a smoking ban in Mexico is extremely difficult to enforce, for the same reasons as banning the personal use of illegal drugs.

The February 2008 regulations called for the Mexican Secretariat of Health to set up a hotline which people could call to “snitch” on people smoking tobacco in newly forbidden areas. People caught breaking the regulations face fines, ranging from relatively small sums for individuals caught smoking to much larger fines for businesses caught in violation of the law. These regulations seem to be based on a belief that in enforcing tobacco laws, the Mexican officials – be they police or otherwise – would be able to avoid the same problems of corruption that have plagued efforts to fight drugs and other crime.

One of the reasons that the personal possession of drugs was decriminalized was that police often solicited bribes from small-time drug users, making the enforcement of possession laws problematic, to say the least. In the almost two years since the tobacco laws passed, it is unclear why a change in behavior on the part of law enforcement is expected. Even if corruption wasn’t as endemic in the forces of law and order as it is, the enforcement of these regulations would still be difficult. Are Mexico’s police and health officials – already burdened by a war on drugs, high levels of crime and an H1N1 flu epidemic – to be further tasked with enforcing restrictions on an extremely widespread habit?

Practical enforcement questions aside, the Mexican government is being hypocritical. On one hand, the government is being progressive and allowing unprecedented freedoms to those who make the decision to use illegal drugs for their own personal consumption. On the other, it is becoming increasingly harsh with those who choose to smoke tobacco, making it more difficult for them to buy cigarettes and telling them where they can use them.

The regulations have turned drugs into a public health issue, and tobacco to a matter for law enforcement.

There is one other important difference. While allowing the personal consumption of drugs arguably doesn’t hurt anyone besides the user, the restrictions on tobacco have more widespread effects. They hurt businesses in an already poor country, cutting down on the profits of everyone from tobacco sellers, restaurateurs and bar owners, all the way down to street vendors.

The Mexican government should review its policies of harm reduction to make sure that they are not causing further problems. Furthermore, the Mexican government must realistically look at its ability to enforce such far-reaching laws before it passes them.

Until the manner in which enforcement is handled is made clear, this law, like many past laws in Mexico, is nothing more than a license for corruption.

Bernd Debusmann Jr., an aspiring journalist, was born in Mexico City and currently lives in Washington, DC. He holds a BA in political science from Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He can be reached via email at Bernd.Debusmann(at) To see his weekly roundup of Mexican drug war news, go to the Drug War Chronicle at

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