Once Philip Morris Workers, Now They Clamp Down On Uruguay's Smokers

Once Philip Morris Workers, Now They Clamp Down On Uruguay's Smokers

8:22am May 08, 2015
Daniel Gomez (from left), Lister Sena and Ricardo Alvarez were laid off after working for years with Philip Morris in Uruguay. They are now inspectors enforcing the country's tough anti-smoking laws.
Daniel Gomez (from left), Lister Sena and Ricardo Alvarez were laid off after working for years with Philip Morris in Uruguay. They are now inspectors enforcing the country's tough anti-smoking laws.
Lourdes Garcia-Navarro / NPR

The tiny nation of Uruguay is fighting a big opponent – the tobacco giant Philip Morris. Their legal battle is over tough anti-smoking legislation enacted in Uruguay which Philip Morris is trying to overturn.

But Uruguay has found some unlikely allies – a group of former Philip Morris workers.

Daniel Gomez, a 56-year-old with a salt-and-pepper mustache, recounts the day in 2011 he was fired from the job he'd had for 27 years. It started off the same as any other. He arrived at the Philip Morris factory where he did quality control and went to work. Just before his shift ended, though, everyone was called into the cafeteria.

"They gathered us all, and officially and without any previous warning, tell us that management had decided to close the factory down," he says.

The reason they gave was the excessive regulation of smoking in Uruguay.

Uruguay has some of the toughest anti–smoking legislation in the world.

You can't advertise tobacco products anywhere and at least 80 percent of a package of cigarettes must carry a health warning – often a gruesome picture of someone dying from a smoking-related disease. Also, tobacco companies can't sell different versions of the same brand – Marlboro and Marlboro light for example.

Lister Sena, who worked at Philip Morris for 11 years, says after they lost their jobs, some of the workers banded together to form the 21st of October Cooperative — named after the day they were fired. At first he says it was impossible to find work. They tried for two years.

Fumando Apestas: A cigarette package in Montevideo, Uruguay, warns that

Fumando Apestas: A cigarette package in Montevideo, Uruguay, warns that "smoking, you stink."

Matilde Campodonico/AP

A New Line Of Work

Finally, they knocked on the door of the Ministry of Health, he says. And it happened that they needed inspectors to enforce the new anti-smoking laws.

The ministry only had about four inspectors to cover the whole country so the men joined the team. So Sena now works against the company that once employed him.

"It's a comfort that what we are doing helps people's health. So now I feel better about my job than before," he says.

That job entails both enforcement and outreach. The men spend a lot of time explaining the anti-smoking legislation and trying to get people to stop smoking.

But they also carry out inspections.

Daniel Gomez walks into a popular Irish bar to examine the premises. He's looking for tobacco advertising or any evidence that someone has been smoking indoors.

The bar is not even allowed to have the colors of a popular brand of cigarettes suggestively placed on the wall. An infraction can carry a hefty fine or risk closure of the establishment.

Gomez says that the new laws wouldn't have teeth without the inspectors.

"The tobacco companies never thought that Uruguay would enforce the laws. What (we) do has been key," he says.

A Pending Lawsuit

Gomez's former employer Philip Morris is suing Uruguay. The issue is being litigated right now in Washington. Essentially Phillip Morris argues that Uruguay's laws infringe on free trade and the companies' profits.

"The question in this case is specific to the combination of the rule that says you can only have one brand at a time and 80 percent warning, which not only further interferes with our competitive position, but also raises serious questions about whether there was the proper legal authority," Marc Firestone, of Philip Morris International, told the BBC earlier this year.

Uruguay argues that it has the right to safeguard public health. The laws have had an effect, say Uruguayan health officials, with smoking going down by at least a third.

Polls also show the anti-tobacco legislation is widely supported among the population.

A ruling on the case isn't expected for several months.

Still, the saga of Philip Morris in Uruguay has had one clear upside. Inspector Ricardo Alvarez tells me that day he was fired four years ago made him quit smoking for good.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The tiny nation of Uruguay has cracked down on cigarettes with some tough anti-smoking regulations. The tobacco giant Philip Morris is fighting to overturn them. And now here's the twist in the story. In going after smokers, Uruguay's government has been getting help from some former Philip Morris workers. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports from the capital, Montevideo.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: The day Daniel Gomez was fired from the job he'd had for 27 years started off the same as any other; he arrived at the Philip Morris factory where he did quality control, and he went to work. Just before his shift ended, though, everyone was called into the cafeteria.

DANIEL GOMEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "It was 2011," he says. "They gathered us all unofficially, and without any previous warning, told us that management had decided to close the factory down," he says.

GOMEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He continues, "all the newspapers were talking about how Philip Morris was closing its operations because of what they said was the excessive regulation of the Uruguayan market," he says.

Uruguay has some of the toughest anti-smoking legislation in the world. You can't advertise tobacco products anywhere, and at least 80 percent of a pack of cigarettes must carry a health warning - often a gruesome picture of someone dying from a smoking-related disease. Also tobacco companies can't sell different versions of the same brand, so no Marlboro and Marlboro Light, for example.

LISTER SENA: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lister Sena also worked at Philip Morris for 11 years. He says, after everyone lost their jobs, some of the workers banded together to form the 21 of October Cooperative - named after the date they were fired. At first, he says, it was impossible to find work. They tried for almost two years.

SENA: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "Finally, we knocked on the door of the Ministry of Health," he says, "and it happened that they needed inspectors to enforce the new anti-smoking laws," he explains. The ministry had only about four to cover the whole country. They had a need, and now there were men to fill it. So now, pretty ironically, Sena works against the company that once employed him.

SENA: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "It's a comfort," Sena says, "that what we are doing helps people's health, so now I feel better about my job than before," he says.

GOMEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Si.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And this is their job. Daniel Gomez walks into a popular Irish bar to inspect the premises. What he's looking for is evidence that anyone has been smoking indoors or for any tobacco advertising. Any infraction can carry a hefty fine or risk closure of the establishment.

GOMEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Back outside, Gomez says that the new laws wouldn't have teeth without them.

GOMEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "The tobacco companies never thought that Uruguay would enforce the laws," he says. "What we do has been key."

Gomez's former employer, Philip Morris, is suing Uruguay. The issue is being litigated right now in Washington, D.C. Essentially Philip Morris argues that Uruguay's laws infringe on free trade and the company's profits. This is Marc Firestone from Philip Morris International speaking to the BBC earlier this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARC FIRESTONE: The question in this case, though, is specific to the combination of the rule that says you can only have one brand at a time and the 80 percent warning, which not only further interferes with our competitive position but also raises serious questions about whether there was the proper legal authority.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Uruguay argues that it has the right to safeguard public health.

RICARDO ALVAREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Still the saga of Philip Morris in Uruguay has had one clear upside. Inspector Ricardo Alvarez tells me that the day he was fired in 2011 made him quit smoking for good. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Montevideo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Support your
public radio station