Uruguay’s fight against big tobacco

President José Mujica of Uruguay recently completed his official six-day visit to the United States. Hoping to secure an agreement that would ensure the blossoming of U.S.-Uruguayan relations, President Mujica undertook the state visit to Washington with the aim of strengthening diplomatic ties with the White House.

After Mujica’s meeting with President Barack Obama on May 12, COHA had the opportunity to attend the Uruguayan president’s press conference at the Embassy of Uruguay. The topics of discussion included the Uruguayan battle against tobacco.

Uruguay has some of the world’s toughest tobacco laws. It was the first Latin American country and the fifth nation worldwide to ban smoking in enclosed public places.

President Mujica acknowledged having previously been a smoker and echoed Obama’s support for Uruguay in their fight against tobacco. The Uruguayan president expressed his view of tobacco as a major public health issue for both governments, describing the people who have died from smoking as victims of a form of modern warfare.


Mujica added that Obama has proven to be very interested in guiding public opinion on the issue of smoking. Nevertheless, Mujica reported that the Obama administration was not particularly interested in being dragged into the lawsuit Montevideo is currently embroiled in with Philip Morris, a Swiss tobacco company. The company has alleged that Uruguayan anti-smoking campaigns have violated a 1988 bilateral investment treaty between Switzerland and Uruguay. Philip Morris specifically complains that restricted tobacco marketing in Uruguay infringes on its intellectual rights, and it demands compensation for what it labels as millions of dollars in lost profit. [1]

Obama faced similar tobacco industry resistance when a law to place graphic anti-smoking images on tobacco packages was struck down by a U.S. court as a violation of the First Amendment. [2]

On a more general note, in the discussion of tobacco and other topics, President Mujica clearly presented himself as a revolutionary idealist who defies all presidential clichés. For example, Mujica never wears a tie, and he did not do so even to meet with President Obama at the White House. When journalists interview him, he hardly tries to be diplomatic. Instead, he openly displays his impassioned character.

During his trip to the U.S., Mujica demonstrated his ability to stand his ground against the president of the most powerful country in the world, designating himself as “the leader” of Latin American self-determination. However, it is still unclear whether the leader of a tiny South American country of minor geopolitical significance and with increasing inflation can maintain that kind of leadership role.

This blog was adapted from a press release written by Francesca Realacci and Alexander J. Preiss, research associates at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA).

  1. El Pais: Uruguay’s Mujica to ask Obama for help in legal battle with Philip Morris
  2. Reuters: U.S. court strikes down graphic warnings on cigarettes