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The 9th December last year was a historic day on the Pacific island of Guam, an unincorporated territory of the United States. Governor Felix Camacho signed into law a bill making restaurants and most enclosed public places smoke-free. Bill 16 was written by Democratic senator Lou Leon Guerrero, who, in 2003, raised tobacco taxes on Guam. While the bill that was passed was not as strong as the original version, it represents a step towards a healthier future for the island’s 170 000 people, who have the highest adult smoking prevalence of all US States and Territories.
It took a lot of manoeuvring and shrewd political strategy to get the bill passed, because of efforts to block and/or dilute it by parties aligned with tobacco-related interests. Introduced by the health committee, the bill was unexpectedly taken over by the finance committee, supposedly because of concerns about adverse effects on business revenues. However, local community advocates and political observers noted that the senator heading the finance committee belonged to a powerful family that oversees the distributorship of tobacco and alcohol products on Guam. In addition, the Guam Hotel and Restaurant Association opposed the bill early on, purportedly because of concerns that it would reduce hospitality revenues, particularly from Guam’s Japanese and South Korean tourists. Ironically, a recent market survey of more than 900 South Korean tourists revealed that over 80% approved of smoke-free restaurants and bars.
A public hearing held in March 2005 demonstrated overwhelming multi-sectoral backing for the bill. Letters of support came from individuals and groups locally and worldwide, after a petition was circulated on GLOBALink. Testimonies and technical advice from experts on the US mainland and in the Asia-Pacific region were critical in strengthening the case for enacting a smoke-free public places policy. Despite clear public approval for the bill, the finance committee delayed its inclusion on the legislature’s agenda for eight months. During this period, the office of Senator Guerrero and various pro-health groups kept up pressure on the finance committee to release the bill for a senatorial vote. Critical information and research data were provided to individual senators regarding the positive experience of other US states and countries that have enacted smoke-free legislation.
On 22 November, the finance committee finally released a compromise version for the legislature’s consideration. The revised bill stipulated that restaurants and bars prohibit smoking until 9 pm, after which it would be allowed. The majority of senators rejected the compromise version, using arguments from the technical information previously disseminated by various pro-health groups. On 30 November, 12 of the 14 Senators present voted to pass Guam’s first comprehensive smoke-free public places law. The final version bans smoking completely in enclosed public places, workplaces and restaurants, but allows smoking in bars.
The combined efforts of community advocates, prevention workers, several senators committed to public health policies, and the global tobacco control community ensured that a sound version of the original bill prevailed. While not as comprehensive as the original version, the current law represents a major step forward towards creating a healthier, tobacco-free future for Guam. In addition, Guam serves as opinion leader and setter of precedents for the other US-affiliated Micronesian islands, and is an important trendsetter for the northern Pacific. The Federated States of Micronesia (a US affiliated Micronesian country) is already looking to emulate the Guam law.