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Published on Dec 12, 2013 in Featured Articles, Latin America, News

Smoking in Latin American

“Only Satan can grant the faculty of expelling smoke through the mouth,” according to The Economist, this quote came from the Spanish Inquisition in imprisoning Rodrigo de Jerez, one of Columbus’s sailors, who was the first person to bring tobacco to Europe.

Prior to the 1960s, smoking in Latin America was an accepted, and even expected, part of everyday life. People smoked in movie theaters, at funerals, baptisms, and even in maternity wards. That changed when the U.S. Surgeon General issued a report on the effects of smoking on one’s health. At that time 52 percent of Americans smoked, twenty years later that number was down to 25 percent. However, Latin America did not experience as rapid a decrease in the number of smokers. Smoking is still prevalent in Latin America.

There are currently 145 million smokers in Latin America, 25 percent of the region’s population, comprising between 8 and 10 percent of the world’s smokers. These smokers consume between 500 and 1500 cigarettes per year.

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According to the World Lung Foundation, 9.7 million of these smokers reside in Chile. Chileans, as it turns out, are smoking fanatics, having the highest smoking prevalence in the region. According to the World Health Organization, over 40 percent of Chileans smoke, 44 percent male and 37 percent female. This compares to 27 percent of Argentines and 17 percent of people in Brazil. And, in an apparent anomaly, 40 percent of girls aged 13-15 smoke cigarettes, up from 20 percent in 2003. However only 28 percent of boys the same age smoke. One reason for this is that cigarettes in Chile are the most affordable in the world. According to Chile’s health minister, smoking is looked upon by young people as a sign of being liberated.

Across Latin America 13.16 percent of those between the ages of 15 and 18 are smokers, with Chile having the highest rate, at 39.2 percent, and Colombia, Mexico, Argentina, and Uruguay having 33.4, 27.1, 25.8, and 22.9 percent of smokers in this age group respectively. The lowest percentage of smoking among youth is in Venezuela, with 8.4 percent of young Venezuelans smoking.

Governments are trying to combat the large number of its citizens who still light-up. Uruguay’s former President Tabare Vazquez, for example, initiated 100 percent smoke-free public areas within the country, rapidly decreasing tobacco use in urban areas, where 95 percent of Uruguay’s population resides. Other Latin America countries with have legislated smoke-free public areas include Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, and Peru. In all, 20, Latin American countries ban smoking in public places, as well as ban the advertising, promotion, and sponsorship of tobacco products The Ministry of Health in Brazil has also instituted smoking restrictions, which has reduced the number of smokers to under 15 percent of those older than 15. In addition, Uruguay and Peru both prohibit cigarettes from being displayed in their stores.

Health related services for smokers in Latin America are at both ends of the spectrum, with the Chilean government paying $1.14 billion yearly in health related services, and the Brazilian health system paying $11 billion.

Some countries are in an economic quandary as they try to balance public pressure for banning smoking along with protecting smoking-related jobs. Brazil, for example, is the world’s third largest producer of tobacco leaf. The government is receiving pressure from tobacco growers who see the governments pricing and large tax on cigarettes, as well as its anti-smoking campaigns, as being responsible for a decreasing demand for their product. According to Luis Carlos Heinze, a Brazilian federal deputy, 230,000 families in Brazil depend on tobacco for their subsistence.

Still many Latin American countries view tobacco as an important part of their economy. Even though Colombia has initiated 100 percent smoke free areas, for example, it still views tobacco crops as economically desirable. In fact, the government is encouraging tobacco growing in areas reclaimed from armed conflict. The Ministry of Agriculture actively backs tobacco cultivation. In all, 20 Latin American countries still seed and cultivate tobacco. Currently, according to the National Institutes of Health, five out of the 25 largest tobacco producers in the world are in Latin America (Brazil, Argentina, Cuba, Dominican Republic, and Colombia).

Tobacco smuggling is a significant problem in Latin America. In Argentina, for example, smuggled tobacco comprises 20 percent of the entire market in that country. Much of these smuggled cigarettes come from Paraguay, which produces 40 billion cigarettes annually but consumes only 3 billion a year. In addition, according to the National Institutes of Health, 80 percent of the cigarettes produced in Uruguay return to the country to be sold illegally. Smuggled cigarettes may represent as much as 30 percent of the total number of cigarettes consumed in Latin America.

Tobacco consumption is the second most common cause of death worldwide after high blood pressure, according to The World Bank, killing one in ten adults. In addition, 600,000 non-smokers die each year due to “passive smoking” after breathing second hand smoke.

 Alan Refkin

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