So far Costa Rica has avoided tough smoking restrictions

Quality Cubans are good to the last puff, but only a butane light is appropriate. A.M. Costa Rica photo

With overarching taxation and regulation taking firm hold on tobacco sales and usage in the States, many travelers and expats alike find themselves attracted to the smoke signals wafting from the cigarette and cigar friendly establishments of Costa Rica.

For Bruce Levy, relocated from Florida and now owner of The Havana Room, a cigar shop and lounge in the Little Havana Hotel in San Jose, the ability to buy a Cuban cigar and smoke it indoors is not only about collecting tourism dollars but also indicative of free choice.

“There’s no freedom in America anymore,” Levy said as he puffed on a cigar in a lounge chair next to his walk-in humidor at his shop. “That’s why people are coming here.”

In Costa Rica he can sell his Cuban-made cigars, a commodity entirely illegal in the U.S. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security Web site states that possession or importation of such cigars is punishable by fines of up to $50,000 because of the politically motivated half-century long trade embargo with Cuba.

And a change in that part of Levy’s definition of freedom can’t be seen anywhere on the near-horizon either.

The U.S. federal government has maintained an embargo on Cuban commercial goods, not just cigars, despite international pressure to reverse it. The most recent example of the embargo’s unpopularity came earlier this week with 187 countries opposing it in a U.N. General Assembly vote. The year marked the 20th consecutive year of such a vote.

The national attitude towards the regulation of tobacco has been pushing more restrictive practices on home soil as well, regarding where people can smoke and the taxation of such products. Taxes levied per pack in the U.S. hover around $1.50 but can be double or nearly triple that in certain states. A pack of 20 Marlboro cigarettes in Costa Rica costs roughly $2.

Also, Costa Rican businesses such as restaurants, casinos and bars have essentially reserved the right of their patrons to smoke freely indoors, the opposite is true of their U.S. counterparts. As of the beginning of this month, a list compiled by the American Nonsmoker’s Rights Foundation demonstrates that roughly two-thirds of U.S. states have enacted law making either bars, restaurants or non-hospitality workplaces, or in most cases all three, smoke free. Many localities have stricter laws.

Costa Rica currently has a law in place prohibiting smoking in many public and work places including buses, schools and other sites, but stricter legislation to implement a tobacco tax and limit its use in hospitality establishments, which have thus far escaped regulation, is in the works. The pending anti-smoking law has the support of anti-smoking activists and many health professionals.

The country also ratified a World Health Association treaty, but so far has not taken action to implement the treaty restrictions here.

Although the tide may be shifting in Costa Rica, Levy argued that Costa Rica’s open tobacco laws are a lure for tourists and visitors, in the same vein as other popular Costa Rican attractions. He said he likes the fact his cigars can be smoked in so many places.

“Of course I’m against them changing the laws,” he said.

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