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On 2 October last year, just five days after Argentina signed the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), the magazine Veintitrés (“Twenty-three”) published a note on smoke-free environments. The main story of the magazine was illustrated on the front cover using the swastika under the title “The non-smokers’ dictatorship”.
Smoke-free environments are close to becoming a reality for Argentineans, not only as a result of the signing of the FCTC but also because of strong advocacy from the anti-tobacco movement and the government’s support for strong legislation. The story focused on the alleged persecution that smokers endure from the “crusaders” for tobacco control, especially the prohibition to smoke in closed environments. In addition, it included the opinion of well known individuals in Argentina, some arguing for and some against tobacco control. The story also provided examples of the alleged importance of tobacco in the history of show business and politics. Examples included Winston Churchill and Fidel Castro (nowadays, of course, an ex-smoker who lends his support to health campaigns). Statistics about the burden of tobacco and the commercial interests of the tobacco industry in Argentina were also included.
It was noteworthy that the author of the story, Raquel Roberti, failed to mention the deadly effects of secondhand smoke, or the benefits from smoke-free environments that include a decrease in heart disease mortality, smoking prevalence, and the number of cigarettes smoked. Also absent from the story was the previously documented strategy used by the tobacco industry to avoid smoke-free environments in Argentina, which included banning the “Neri Bill” in 1992.
It is worth examining the wider media context in which the magazine is published. Veintitrés is a weekly magazine aimed at the middle and high socioeconomic classes—professionals, government officials, and students—and sells approximately 10 000 copies each week. It is advertised on television. A well known journalist and former director of the magazine, one of the people whose views against tobacco control were quoted in the article, also conducts a popular political news programme on television together with some of the staff of Veintitrés. During the show, and most unusually for television, he smokes frequently—he obtained a privileged contract to be the only person allowed to smoke on the studio set. Just as Veintitrés is promoted on television, the television programme itself is advertised in Veintitrés. The show’s large audience (about one million) includes many young people.
The author of the Veintitrés article smokes, but no relationship has been found between her or the magazine and the tobacco industry, except one tobacco advertisement in each of two issues in the past few months. In issues following publication of the article, the editor published some helpful letters from the public, sent in response to the pro-tobacco position of the original article. Perhaps the original motivation of the author and editor was to challenge the present tobacco control climate in Argentina, which is growing and enjoys the support of the country’s president, just as every week the television programme mentioned above challenges the bans on smoking in closed environments.
However, the Veintitrés article’s comparison of the smoke-free movement with the Nazis is a classic example of the favourite tobacco industry strategy of trying to position those who work for smoke-free environments as members of an extremist movement. Tobacco control activists around the world should be aware of this strategy, and be prepared to respond with the appropriate arguments.