Smoking ban, tourism face off in Puerto Rico
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – Aida Sanchez squints through the smoke billowing her way from the fat cigars and cigarettes of fellow gamblers.Alone in the small nonsmoking section of a seaside casino, the 60-year-old Puerto Rican puts up with the acrid second-hand smoke in order to pass time in the casinos of this U.S. island territory.”Where else am I going to go?” Sanchez, a retired hair stylist, says above the din of clinking coins and beeps.Relief may be on the way for people like Sanchez after lawmakers on Thursday passed what would be the toughest anti-smoking law in the Caribbean. The governor said he will sign the restrictions over the objections of some in the tourism industry, banning smoking in bars, restaurants and other public buildings because of health concerns for the employees.
Violators of the law, set to take effect next year, would face a fine of $250 for a first offense, but it is unclear how strenuously it would be enforced.The law would set Puerto Rico apart from its Caribbean and Latin American neighbors.Though common in the United States, smoking restrictions are still relatively rare and mild farther south.In some parts of Mexico, restaurants now are required to have a nonsmoking section, and Cuba last year restricted smoking – even cigars – in most public places. Jamaica and Bermuda are considering imposing limits.
But none goes as far as Puerto Rico, which would also ban smoking in cars carrying passengers younger than 13.Opponents see the law as a threat to tourism on an island where many people like to puff on a giant stogie, drink in hand, while betting in one of Puerto Rico’s nearly two dozen casinos. The gambling halls are key to the territory’s $3 billion tourism industry.”We are competing with destinations like the Dominican Republic and the Virgin Islands, where you can smoke in the casinos,” said Cesar Santiago, marketing director for the casino at the Inter-Continental San Juan Resort.Sanchez, for one, said she is unlikely to travel abroad to gamble, whether the law is adopted or not. But some tourists say the ban would make them travel elsewhere.
“I really enjoy smoking when I play the slots,” said Jerry Riekert, 72, of Huntington, N.Y., gambling with a Camel dangling from his mouth in the Condado Plaza Hotel. “I prefer to go where you can definitely smoke.”Such sentiments worry Puerto Rico’s Tourist Company, which promotes travel to the island of 4 million. Terestella Gonzalez Denton, the executive director, said lawmakers have not considered all the implications for the economy.But Gabriel Rodriguez Aguilo, a local congressman who authored the bill, dismissed the concerns.”If anything, this will make Puerto Rico, a land free of smoke, more popular with tourists,” he said.