03/19/2012 01:08 pm ET Updated Nov 20, 2012

Brazil Declares War On Teen Smoking

Just weeks after former president Lula was treated for smoking-related laryngeal cancer Brazil's National Health Agency (ANVISA) has prohibited the sale of flavored cigarettes and banned the use of several additive chemicals used in manufacturing tobacco products including certain adhesive substances that, like tobacco, can cause chemical dependency.

Escalating the government's war on teen smoking, the ban follows a study published by influential Sao Paulo daily O Estado which indicates that a nationwide sampling of 17 thousand students between the ages of 13 and 15 who have already started smoking prefer flavored cigarettes.

Pan American Health Organization officials have long argued that international tobacco firms, particularly those operating in Brazil, target the youth market to boost sales. That view was amped up recently by the World Health Organization, which has declared war on what it characterizes as a global teen smoking pandemic.

Meanwhile, a booming business in cheap cigarettes exported from Paraguay under the guise of free trade is putting millions of Brazilian and other kids in Latin America at risk and generates handsome profits for big tobacco. Ugly images and tough warnings that appear on the back of cigarette packages that are manufactured, taxed and sold legally in Brazil depicting adults and children who have been maimed by cancer have done little to deter teen smokers.

A pack of 20 name brand cigarettes sell for around 5 reals ($3) in Brazil. But the attractively packaged budget brands carrying just a fine print warning with the country of export identified as PY retail in Brazil for half that price. Ironically, Paraguay's president Fernando Lugo received cancer treatment at the same hospital that Brazil's former leader Lula did. But neither man is talking about the teen smoking issue.

The International Tobacco Organization, meanwhile, sees tobacco as a godsend for emerging economies. The industry organization claims that tobacco is responsible for creating 35 million jobs world wide, many in Latin America. Brazil is the world's third largest tobacco grower behind #2 India and top producer China.

Distribution and sale of budget smokes has spawned a multi-billion dollar informal economy in Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile and Paraguay, the nations who comprise the South American Free Trade Zone known as Mercosul, which was created by the Treaty of Asuncion in 1991. Most cigarettes exported from Paraguay are made with blends featuring Brazilian tobacco.

Today, legitimate businesses, smugglers, drug cartels, favela gangs, and enterprising students are all involved in the action. Whether the commerce in cheap cigarettes is free trade or illegal contraband depends on who you talk to. But so far, money spent on anti-smoking campaigns and tough enforcement policies in South America has brought mixed results.

Paraguay, with soft tobacco regulation, is the most corrupt nation in South America, with a rating of 154 on the latest Transparency International Corruption Perception Index. The high profile arrest in Paraguay of wealthy Brazilian cigarette smuggler Roque Silveira and a Chilean associate last March resulted in the quick release of both men. The Center for Public Integrity reports that Silveira, who was sent to prison for smuggling in the US in 2005, has high level connections in Paraguay's government

Adding drama to the situation, public diplomacy propaganda pumped out of the US Embassy in Asuncion, Paraguay has claimed that Hizbollah and other extremist organizations are using the trade in cheap cigarettes and duty-free items in the tri-border area of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay to fund terrorist operations.

Because Brazil's political class has not provided adequate funding to activist organizations that scale with the US National Cancer Institute or the American Cancer Society the use of hard statistical information as a weapon in the battle against teen smoking remains an opportunity lost. While the Sirio-Libanes and Albert Einstein Hospitals in Sao Paulo are world class cancer treatment centers programs to educate young millenials to the dangers of tobacco smoke resonate with the educated middle class teens who can afford to buy Harry Potter books but come up short with the kids on the street.

Efforts to prohibit teen smoking throughout the region escalates the conflict between governments who seek to legislate behavior and businesses and some politicians who view tobacco as a question of personal choice and laissez-faire economics. In the convoluted world of globalism one can find anti-smoking activists meeting in a cafe in Santa Monica, California tweeting on hand held devices made by workers who smoke in China and Brazil.

In the U.S., the American Cancer Society claims that tobacco use is responsible for nearly 1 in 5 deaths. But in a don't worry-be happy Brazil, where big tobacco provides big tax revenue for a big government that's making big budget cuts to fight inflation it's tough to find a statistic like that.