ROBERTO MACEDO holds up an old picture of Sao Paulo's now-antismoking mayor in his earlier days as a smoker.
"I was going to put this up in my restaurant but decided I didn't want to get that personal. In my restaurant, I'm not worried about the mayor's [no-smoking] law. Here we follow my law," Mr. Macedo says.
Macedo, the owner of Churrascaria Rodeio, a popular barbecue restaurant, is a leading combatant in what the Brazilian press dubs the "smoking war."
The battle is over a regulation that bars smoking from Sao Paulo's estimated 50,000 bars and restaurants. The decree from Mayor Paulo Maluf took effect in late September.
Since then, health inspectors have fined Macedo nearly $1,200 for allowing his customers to smoke.
But Macedo contends that the decree is illegal, since he is abiding by a 1990 state law that divides restaurants into equal smoking and nonsmoking sections. As a result, he and several other restaurateurs have filed an injunction to allow them to go by the 1990 state law. A judge agreed.
While San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York have enacted smoking bans in city restaurants, it is unprecedented in Latin America.
In fact, Mr. Maluf's position is remarkable when one considers that public smoking is widely accepted in Brazil. Most newspaper editorials have criticized him as a foe of personal freedom.
Tobacco industry statistics show that 50 million Brazilian adults, one-third of the population, smokes, compared with one-fourth of American adults.
Televised cigarette commercials - banned in the US since 1971 - are shown here. Tobacco companies regularly sponsor prestigious cultural events, and smokers can indulge their habit almost anywhere.
The tobacco industry, much like its American counterpart, wields strong political influence. Brazil is the world's largest exporter of raw tobacco leaf, and companies here last year registered earnings of $7.3 billion, according to the Brazilian Association of Tobacco Industries (ABIFUMO).
Maluf is an ex-smoker, who quit 14 years ago after a 28-year habit. He now detests smoking so much that he has asked his wife, Silvia, an avid smoker, to light up only in designated areas of their home.
His decree allows restaurant owners to maintain smoking sections only if they create completely sealed-off areas called "smokedromes." Bars and nightclubs that don't serve food are excluded.
"If they don't smoke inside movie theaters and churches, why do they insist in restaurants?" Maluf asks.
Supermarkets, malls next
According to Roberto Paulo Richter, the city health secretary, the mayor is merely enforcing a 1980 municipal law that banned smoking in enclosed public places but has never been enforced. This month, Maluf applied the law to supermarkets and next month says he will do the same in city shopping centers.
"We are trying to bring modern first-world health standards to Sao Paulo, but some restaurant owners have a fifth-world education," Richter says. "Money in their pocket is more important than health."
Percival Mariacato, the president of a Sao Paulo restaurant association, says the smoking ban has caused business to fall between 10 to 20 percent.
"It's antidemocratic and anti-private initiative," he says. "Today it's smoking, tomorrow he [Maluf] won't let us drink [alcohol]."
While a ban on drinking is not on his agenda, Maluf has come under fire for enforcing laws to halt the common practice of placing restaurant tables on public sidewalks, regulating noise levels from nightclub music, and fining drivers who don't fasten their seat belts.
But some say the mayor, a political conservative, may be more interested in enhancing his career than in changing his constituents' disregard for laws.
The smoking ban is a controversial issue that keeps his name in the spotlight for a future run at the presidency, a job he has coveted for years.
"He needs a sexy issue to set himself off from other candidates," says Ricard Foster, editor of the Brasilia-based business newsletter Brazil Watch.
"He is building a reputation on enforcing rules at a time when Brazilians are realizing that their great value on personal liberty is perhaps not a good idea for the nation," Mr. Foster says.
Brazilians typically smoke under no-smoking signs, park on sidewalks, don't fasten their seat belts or stop at red lights, and litter city streets. The knack of maneuvering around rules and problems even has its own Portuguese term, the jeitinho.
"I've seen people write a check for the fine, hand it to the waiter, and then light up," says business executive Paulo Chaits Kus. "If they aren't caught, the waiter then tears up the check."
Even Mrs. Maulf tried a jeitinho recently at the chic Italian Terrace restaurant. When a waiter asked her to put out her cigarette, her press secretary asked him to look the other way.
"She stopped smoking as soon as I asked her," says restaurant manager Julio Escandar, who was called in to help his employee. Maluf says he later sent his "congratulations to the waiter who correctly followed the law."
Health Secretary Richter says Sao Paulo's antismoking campaign is setting an example for the nation, and that Brazilians are today more aware of the hazards of smoking. He may be right:
*Cigarette advertising on television is limited to the hours between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m.
*The National Cancer Institute began a test program in Rio public schools to educate 3 million students about health and smoking.
*The ministry of health approved placing explicit health warnings on cigarette packs.
*The Brazilian Congress approved a law banning smoking in enclosed public buildings such as museums and the Congress building itself.
"We employ 2.5 million people and pay $4 billion in taxes. We cannot be treated this way," says ABIFUMO spokesman Ronaldo Costa, regarding the fledgling antismoking campaign.
Tobacco lobby on offense
Indeed, the tobacco industry is fighting back. ABIFUMO's trade magazine regularly criticizes Mr. Maluf's decree as "absurd" and "unconstitutional." Souza Cruz, the nation's largest tobacco company, has begun a $300 million campaign in leading magazines.
In one recent ad, South African President Nelson Mandela shakes hands with his former foe, Frederick De Klerk, under the caption, "Opposing viewpoints that came together, black and white, smokers and nonsmokers."
In the meantime, restaurateur Macedo says he will fight the mayor - if need be - all the way to the Brazilian Supreme Court.
"He can't stop his wife from smoking," he says.
"How is he going to stop me?"