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INDUSTRY & TRADE

Swiss vote on banning tobacco advertising and animal testing

The Swiss head to the polls Sunday to decide whether to ban almost all advertising of tobacco products and separately on a blanket ban on all animal testing.

tobacco advertising
Swiss vote on tobacco advertising ban. Photo: Khalil MAZRAAWI / AFP

In-person voting on those and other topics will begin at 10:00 am, with polls due to close just
two hours later.

Since most people vote in advance by post, the final results were expected by late afternoon.

Recent polls indicate that the initiative to tighten Switzerland’s notoriously lax tobacco laws by banning all advertising of the health-hazardous products wherever minors might see it – effectively all settings – is the most likely to pass.

Switzerland lags far behind most wealthy nations in restricting tobacco advertising – a situation widely blamed on hefty lobbying by some of the world’s biggest tobacco companies headquartered in the country.

Currently, most tobacco advertising remains legal at a national level, except on television and radio, or ads that specifically target minors.

Some Swiss cantons have introduced stricter regional legislation and a new national law is pending, but campaigners gathered enough signatures to spur a vote towards a significantly tighter country-wide law.

‘Extreme’

Opponents of the initiative, which include the Swiss government and parliament, say it goes too far.

Philip Morris International (PMI), the world’s largest tobacco company, which, like British American Tobacco and Japan Tobacco, is headquartered in Switzerland and which has helped fund the “No” campaign, described the initiative as “extreme”.

“This is a slippery slope as far as individual freedom is concerned,” a spokesman for PMI’s Swiss section told AFP, warning that it “paves the way for further advertising bans on products such as alcohol or sugar”.

Jean-Paul Humair, who heads a Geneva addiction prevention centre and serves as a spokesman for the “Yes” campaign, flatly rejected that comparison.

“There is no other consumer product that kills half of all users,” he told AFP.

Campaigners claim lax advertising laws have stymied efforts to bring down smoking rates in the Alpine nation of 8.6 million people, where more than a quarter of adults consume tobacco products.

There are around 9,500 tobacco-linked deaths each year.

The latest gfs.bern poll hinted that 63 percent of voters favoured the tobacco advertising ban, but it will also need backing from a majority of Switzerland’s 26 cantons to pass.

Animal testing

There is meanwhile little chance that a bid to ban all animal and human testing will go through, with only a quarter of those questioned in the latest survey backing the move.

All political parties, parliament and the government oppose it, warning it goes too far and would have dire consequences for medical research.

Switzerland has since 1985 rejected three similar initiatives by large margins.

Researchers insist medical progress is impossible without experimentation, and even the Swiss Animal Protection group has warned against the initiative’s “radical” demands.

Swiss authorities insist the country already has among the world’s strictest laws regulating animal testing.

As the laws have tightened, the number of animals used has fallen sharply in recent decades, from nearly two million per year in the early 1980s to around 560,000 today.

In another animal-themed vote, inhabitants in the northern Basel-Stadt canton will on Sunday decide whether non-human primates should be granted some of the same basic fundamental rights as their human cousins.

Among the other issues on Sunday’s slate, there will also be a national referendum on a new law aimed at providing additional state funding to media companies, which have seen their advertising revenues evaporate in recent years.

The government argues the extra funding could secure the survival of many small, regional papers in peril, and also assist with their costly digital transition.

But the latest poll indicates a win for the “No” campaign, backed by rightwing parties, who charge the subsidy would mainly benefit large media groups and would be a waste of public funds.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Anti-abortion activists in Switzerland are just posturing with latest hollow move

As women’s reproductive rights are on the verge of being drastically eroded in the United States, Switzerland is witnessing the launch of two parallel popular initiatives seeking to restrict access to abortion here, writes Clare O'Dea.

OPINION: Anti-abortion activists in Switzerland are just posturing with latest hollow move

This is pure posturing by anti-abortion activists. It is obvious they can’t win the popular vote – the last time there was a vote on abortion in 2014, 80 per cent voted to leave the current regime unchanged – but Swiss campaigners still want to remind the public of their dissent. 

If they hurt women along the way, perhaps that’s acceptable collateral damage for them. Or perhaps that’s the whole point. The initiatives were launched together in December 2021 and the signature gathering deadline is in June 2023.   

All these campaigners achieve by dragging abortion onto the public agenda is piling additional stress and guilt on women who are going through a personal, in some cases heartbreaking, healthcare dilemma. Perhaps the rationale is that this extra pressure would have a deterrent effect. 

Switzerland was one of the first European countries to legislate for abortion in 1937, allowing abortion when the woman’s health was in danger. The cantons were free to decide how strictly to interpret the law and this led to a patchwork of abortion services across the country. 

Women ended up needing to travel inside the country to access abortion right up to 2002 when voters accepted the new abortion law allowing unrestricted access to abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. The law set conditions for abortions after this point. 

Reader question: Is abortion legal in Switzerland?

The first of the two initiatives is the ‘Save viable babies’ campaign to stop late-term abortions unless the mother’s life is in danger. This would apply to pregnancies from 22 weeks gestation where the foetus could potentially survive outside the womb with medical support. 

The second one is the blandly named ‘Sleep on it’ initiative, seeking to impose a one-day waiting period before allowing women and girls to access abortion treatment. Both sets of signatures are being collected together “for synergy reasons”. 

Three Swiss People’s Party (SVP) parliamentarians are behind the campaigns, including two women, Andrea Geissbühler and Yvette Estermann. They got nowhere in parliament with similar proposals which is why they are taking them to the people. No political party supports either initiative. 

Of the total of some 11,000 pregnancy terminations performed in Switzerland each year, approximately 95 per cent are carried out by the 12th week in accordance with the so-called time-limit regulations. 

Only a very small proportion of all terminations take place at an advanced stage of pregnancy. Some 150 terminations per year are performed after the 17th week of pregnancy. The ‘Save viable babies’ campaign is targeting pregnancies terminated from 22 weeks gestation onwards. There are an estimated 40 such cases per year. 

Just to be clear, the campaign wants the whole country to vote on the fate of 40 women per year going through a terrible personal crisis along with their distressed families. 

OPINION: Switzerland’s denial of voting rights to foreigners motivated by fear

The Swiss National Advisory Commission on Biomedical Ethics published an opinion on the practice of late termination of pregnancy in 2018. Here’s what they had to say about these 40 cases annually. 

“The reasons and circumstances underlying advanced pregnancy termination are many and varied. Almost always, the women concerned find themselves in a situation beyond their control, posing a moral dilemma. The need for a decision, and the consequences thereof, can have a lasting impact on the women and their families. Accordingly, the primary ethical principle is that all options need to be jointly considered, with empathetic and careful support being provided for the people concerned.”

Those options include what is called palliative birth for babies with serious conditions who will die at birth or shortly afterwards. 

Guess what, collecting signatures for 18 months for a popular initiative banning late term abortions is the opposite of empathetic support. It exacerbates the suffering involved. But this is a mindset where nothing is more important than the life of the foetus, least of all the parents’ suffering. 

The number of abortions carried out in advanced pregnancy has remained virtually unchanged over the last ten years. Forty out of 11,000 is not very many, but the fact that these situations arise every year represents a sad fact of life. 

EXPLAINED: What happened after Swiss women got the right to vote in 1971?

Meanwhile the ‘Sleep on it’ initiative seeks to introduce a one-day wait between contacting a doctor and receiving the treatment. In three-quarters of cases this means a prescription for abortion pills. 

The one-day wait seems like a spurious and hollow demand. It is normal to think before you go to the doctor for any procedure. I have no doubt that when a woman asks a doctor for an abortion, she has already thought about it – for days if not weeks. She doesn’t need to go through an extra sleepless night to satisfy anyone.   

We know that the best way to reduce the number of abortions is either to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies – through information and services – or to significantly improve the material situation of women, for example income, housing, safety or job security. These factors already contribute to Switzerland’s low abortion rate

But the anti-abortion activists famously concentrate on the least effective tool – banning abortion or making access difficult. 

As an Irish citizen born in the 1970s, I came of age in a country that enshrined the right to life of the unborn in the constitution in 1983, which is what the ‘Save viable babies’ initiative seeks to do. That constitutional ban took a terrible toll on Irish women and girls for 35 years until it was repealed.  

This constitutional ban affected not only abortion services but maternal care in Ireland, with unnecessary suffering and risks imposed on miscarrying women by doctors afraid of breaking the law, as is now being seen in Poland.  

What we know about Swiss abortion is that it is safe, legal and rare. In an imperfect world, this is as good as it gets, no matter what the purists say.

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