Switzerland, long haven for tobacco ads, weighs ban

ZURICH — The images shock visitors: happy, glamorous couples smoking together in a cafe, cigarette packs open invitingly, wild western landscapes reminiscent of the Marlboro man.

While many countries have long banned cigarette advertising, it lives on in Switzerland, where loose regulations on the sale and marketing of tobacco products make the country an exception in much of the Western world. Advertisements adorn billboards on city streets, play in movie theaters, and are ubiquitous at sporting and cultural events like the famous Montreux Jazz Festival.

But this weekend, much of that could start to fade as Swiss voters decide whether to impose restrictions on tobacco ads that would effectively ban them from public spaces.

The initiative, which is expected to be passed by referendum, according to Swiss media polls, has been endorsed by health advocates who cite the findings of bodies like the World Health Organization that advertisements encourage young people to smoke and that it is more difficult for smokers to quit.

“We want to protect young people and ensure that smoking prevention efforts are not undermined by advertising,” said Hans Stöckli, chairman of the committee behind the initiative.

The initiative has unsurprisingly come up against opposition from the tobacco industry, but also from the government, which has maintained unfashionable friendly relations with the tobacco companies which have set up their regional, even world, in Swiss. A majority of MPs also voted against it. Many of them say that jobs will be lost if the referendum passes, because cigarettes rank with chocolate and cheese among the main exports.

If voters approve the initiative, advertising for tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, would no longer be allowed in places or on websites accessible to under-18s.

Although this would not be a general ban, it would nevertheless represent a significant change. Switzerland is one of the few places in Europe that does not have a national ban on the sale of tobacco-related products to minors. Although some parts of the country prohibit the sale to children under 18 or 16, others have no minimum age and in many places young people can be seen blowing in public.

Switzerland has been unable to ratify the World Health Organization‘s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, despite having signed it in 2004, due to its insufficient restrictions on sponsorship and of advertising. The United States has not ratified the convention either.

Mr Stöckli said that even if voters approved the new legislation, Switzerland would still lag behind other countries when it comes to tobacco regulations. He said advocates had focused on protecting children and young people, instead of a blanket ban, to improve the law’s chances of passage.

“It was a compromise,” he said, adding that he would continue to push for stricter regulation and higher taxes on tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, which contain nicotine. extracted from tobacco.

Switzerland has long courted tobacco multinationals. Philip Morris and Japan Tobacco International have their international headquarters in the country, and British American Tobacco also has a strong presence. The sector employs approximately 4,500 people in Switzerland, according to the government, including in the production of high-tar cigarettes which are illegal to produce or sell in the European Union.

Sunday’s referendum stemmed from a 2015 proposal by the Federal Council, Switzerland’s executive, for a tobacco products law that would ban the sale of tobacco to minors nationwide and restrict advertising. Parliament eventually approved an amended bill that would leave most advertisements intact.

In response to the weakening of the legislation, a group of more than 40 health organizations launched an initiative to toughen it and collected the signatures needed to submit it to voters.

If Swiss voters reject the initiative on Sunday, the amended bill will go into effect without the broad restrictions on ads.

The initiative also includes restrictions on the offering of discounted or free tobacco products and on industry sponsorship of events accessible to minors.

Despite strong support from civil society organizations, the initiative faced strong opposition from politicians in Switzerland.

Mike Egger, a member of the Swiss People’s Party and co-chair of a group formed to encourage people to reject the initiative, said the proposed advertising restrictions ran counter to Switzerland’s liberal values.

“The initiative calls for a ban on advertising a legal product,” he said.

Mr. Egger said that the harmful effects of smoking were well known in Switzerland and that tobacco packaging already carried warnings. Cigarette packs carry both written warnings and gruesome images of diseased body parts that have become common in many countries.

“I am convinced that citizens can decide for themselves whether or not they want to consume tobacco products, and there is no need for a super-state that regulates the sector more heavily,” he said. he declares.

Tobacco control advocates have also accused the Federal Council of siding with the tobacco industry. They pointed a declaration in which the council said the initiative was welcome from a public health perspective, but that it “must weigh the interests of public health against those of the economy” and supported the limitation “ advertising to an extent acceptable to the tobacco industry”.

In the statement, the council acknowledged that almost half of smokers started smoking when they were underage and that tobacco use was responsible for around 15% of deaths in the country.

Pascal Diethelm, an anti-tobacco activist and a supporter of the initiative, said the statement by the Federal Council was shocking. “It’s irrefutable proof that the government has placed smoke-free policy, which is public health policy, under the tutelage of the tobacco industry,” he said.

“I can’t think of any other country in the world that has done this,” Mr Diethelm said, pointing to the council’s rejection of the initiative despite its acknowledgment that an advertising ban would not only benefit children, but also adults. adults, and reduce the high costs associated with smoking.

Martin Kuonen, director of Swiss Cigarette, an association which includes Philip Morris, Japan Tobacco and British American Tobacco, said the tobacco industry was “fully supportive of the protection of minors” and agreed with the idea of set a minimum age for purchasing its products. some products.

But Mr Kuonen said the tougher legislation proposed by the initiative went too far. “This is a de facto advertising ban,” he said, because kids can potentially be exposed to ads anywhere. He said the industry strongly opposes this because “adults will also be indirectly affected”.

Mr Kuonen said that if the public votes in favor of the initiative, tobacco companies “will have to think twice about whether they want to continue investing in Switzerland”.

But Mr Diethelm said he doubted the industry would seriously consider uprooting itself and moving elsewhere.

“Where should they go? ” he said. “I don’t see any decently governed country that would want that.”

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