- The Washington Times - Monday, February 7, 2005

HAVANA — Cuba banned smoking in public places yesterday, an uphill struggle in a country that evokes images of cigar-chomping revolutionaries and where more than half of adults smoke.

Cubans no longer are allowed to smoke in air-conditioned areas, offices, schools and sports centers in an islandwide health drive by President Fidel Castro’s government.

Mr. Castro, once a famous aficionado of Cohiba cigars, gave up smoking nearly two decades ago to safeguard his health.

But many Cubans continue to be heavy smokers, and it is common to find people smoking in hospitals, elevators and even crowded buses, despite attempts to curb the habit.

Cigarette vending machines have been banned outright as part of the drive. State-run bars and restaurants must set up separate smoking areas, although few have done so.

At the Floridita bar, one of writer Ernest Hemingway’s favorites in Havana, a busload of Russian tourists puffed away, happily drinking frozen daiquiris in a smoke-filled room. “Maybe tomorrow,” said a barman.

At Havana’s landmark Nacional Hotel, where Winston Churchill and Hemingway had a cigar-smoking competition over dinner in 1946, ashtrays have been removed from the lobby.

Guests are being told to visit the veranda if they want to enjoy a Habano with their mojito cocktail.

Smoking at the city’s international airport is a thing of the past, though the national carrier Cubana will continue to let passengers smoke on some of its flights, the airline said.

At the How Yueng restaurant in central Havana, where the only Chinese dish is fried rice, no-smoking signs have been up for five years, but that did not deter customers from smoking.

“We turned a blind eye. Now we will be stricter,” said waitress Yaily.

Private restaurants known as “paladars,” vulnerable to fines by roving inspectors, were quick to clamp down on patrons.

A newly printed “Do Not Smoke” sign was stuck to the mirror of Gerardo’s barber shop in Old Havana, and patrons were stepping out for a quick smoke.

“People smoked in here before, despite my complaints,” said Gerardo, cropping a customer’s hair. “Now they will have to go outside. It’s clear now. It’s the law.”

“It’s all right,” said Jorge, a pack-a-day truck driver, as he waited for his turn out on the sidewalk, inhaling a Popular, Cuba’s nonfiltered dark tobacco cigarette. “There is air conditioning inside, and that bothers people who do not smoke.”

The smoking decree published a month ago also banned the sale of cigarettes to minors and at any kiosk within 100 yards of a school.

At the Calixto Garcia Hospital in Havana, however, Cubans were puffing as usual in the cafe, where cigarettes were still on sale.

More than half of Cuban adults smoke, and lung cancer is a major cause of death in the island nation of 11 million.

Many Cubans are skeptical that the new regulations will stick in a country where smoking is so ingrained that the communist state still hands out subsidized cigarettes with ration books to Cubans older than 50.

The Western world’s five-century-long addiction to nicotine began in Cuba, where Christopher Columbus came across the tobacco leaf on his first voyage to the Americas in 1492. Crew members met natives smoking aromatic leaves in small lighted bundles, and Europeans soon copied the habit.

Although cigar manufacturers fled Cuba when it moved to communist rule under Mr. Castro, the island is still renowned for some of the finest smokes in the world.

Younger Cubans, who generally smoke less than previous generations, welcomed the smoking curbs.

“I am all for it. I don’t smoke, and I don’t see why other people’s smoke should harm my health,” said Saidinys Barrera, an art history student.


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