HAVANA, June 7th (IPS Cuba)  Cuban author and journalist Hugo Luis Sanchez just made a request to Cuba’s health authorities, calling on them to back the approval of a law which would ban all publicity that encourages the consumption of cigarettes and alcoholic drinks, a growing trend among the country’s youth.

“The proposal I am putting forward, which I am fully convinced is the right thing to do, will be applauded by our civil society and, (…) will have a positive international impact, I have no doubt about it,” he pointed out in the open letter he sent to Public Health minister, Jose Angel Portal, which IPS Cuba also had access to.

Signed on May 31st, the letter was made public on World No Tobacco Day, established by the World Health Organization.

According to Sanchez (Havana, 1948), his concerns began after seeing teenagers and young people at high school (12-15 years old) “meet up to smoke at the entrance to their high schools,” which he believes “is the gateway to other addictions”.

Such a landscape shouldn’t be meaningless, he analyzes, bearing in mind the repeated warnings from national authorities, which “represent the tip of the iceberg of a very serious problem that can be reduced and, even, prevented: drug addiction.”

“It’s absurd that the media are broadcasting ads, which are also of a high quality and leave a mark on viewers (…) pointing out the damage that addictions cause, while there are attention-grabbing ads everywhere, on transport, parasols… in places that sell goods… poisoning the environment,” Sanchez argues.

The intellectual is referring to a contradiction that the Cuban government has upheld for years, which many experts and civilian voices have also pointed out.

On the one hand, government authorities are giving the population free healthcare, even to treat the epidemic of tobacco use and alcoholism, the costs of which come straight out of public coffers which have been exhausted by the economic crisis since 1991.A Call to End Tobacco and Rum Advertising in Cuba

However, they are also planning to expand the tobacco and rum industry at the same time, which is all under the State’s control and they are considered to be strategic export items.

The tobacco problem has been labelled “delicate” because many families’ livelihoods depend on tobacco cultivation and processing.

Official statistics reveal that Cuba exported 105 million internationally-renowned brand cigars in 2017, which reached a sale record of 500 million USD.

Sanchez says that he has tried to voice his concerns on national TV, “and they have never had the dignity to respond to me, not even with a sad rejection, or in other words, their silence is their answer.”

He reminds us that the country has laws that limit the sale and consumption of these drugs in public places, while he expounds tobacco-related legislation adopted in Panama, which is considered to be one of the countries with the lowest number of smokers on the planet, according to international reports.

The journalist and author explains that he is addressing his letter to the Head of Public Health, “who is the person who is best informed and handles the latest statistics about the harm these addictions cause.”

Plus, Portal has direct access to the National Assembly of People’s Power (unicameral parliament), the State’s highest body of power with law-making abilities, because of his position on the Council of Ministers.

“If the draft law isn’t passed, then I’ll know for sure that the interests of tobacco and rum producers have weighed more heavily in their decision, so as to not detract from the image of the world’s top producer of Premium cigars (and) one of the best rums on the planet,” Sanchez warns.

In 2005, Cuba banned smoking in enclosed public spaces, mass forms of transport, education, health and sports institutions.

It also prohibits the sale of alcoholic drinks, as well as cigarettes and cigars, to under-18s at state-run establishments, and stipulates that these places must clearly designate smoking and non-smoking areas.

However, people are complaining in the media and virtual spaces about the authorities’ slack attitude when it comes to applying fines to people who violate these regulations.

They say that in this Caribbean country with 11.2 million inhabitants, it is becoming and more and more common to see people, mainly teenagers and young people, smoking and drinking alcoholic drinks on public forms of transport and in other non-appropriate places.

Statistics from the World Health Organization rank Cuba in third place out of the Latin American countries with the highest rates of tobacco use (35.2%), with only Bolivia and Chile ahead of them.

Elba Lorenzo Vazquez, head of the National Program of Smoking Prevention and Control, warned that in 2017, 24% of Cuban people aged 15+ were smoking, and 15% of the country’s death rate was linked to smoking-related disease.