Sign of the times


SAO PAULO, Brazil — It’s everywhere: by candy displays, in parking garages, on pharmacy counters, elevators, public buses in rich neighborhoods and poor. Two staggered trapezoids with a cigarette in the middle, a red line through it and the announcement, in Portuguese and sometimes English, too: “Smoking prohibited in this area.”

Since the eye-catching shape is actually a stylized version of the map of this state, the message is actually more like: “Smoking prohibited in this area, because you are in Sao Paulo.”

In a strikingly un-Brazilian wave of adherence to new no-smoking law that went into effect on Aug. 7, just about every single piece of enclosed public space in these parts has the cleverly self-referential no-smoking sign prominently displayed at least one and quite often two or three or four times. Apartment building party rooms, bookstores, internet cafes, fancy boutiques and, of course, restaurants and bars have all complied, and the city has been blanketed.

“They are everywhere,” said Nilva Souza, a retiree who lives in the city center. “My goodness, how many millions of those things have they made?”

No one can be sure. The signs are downloadable from the state government’s website for easy printing, and entrepreneurs were quick to produce versions for the unconnected and those who wanted plastic or metal for durability. Some sell them on the street, strung up like drying laundry on a string between two telephone poles.

The no-smoking sign is beyond a doubt the most common sign in this city and throughout the state. It even beats out the popular “Smile, You’re Being Filmed” announcement and the symbols of Visa and MasterCard, no small feat in this security camera- and debit card-obsessed landscape. Sometimes, there are so many signs, that they seem to be following you. Perhaps the least common phrase now uttered in a Sao Paulo bar is “Can I smoke in here?” Buddy, didn’t you see the signs?

“We decided to make a logo that was a little different from the universal no-smoking sign,” said Bruno Caetano, the state’s secretary of communications whose department was in charge of the publicity strategy for the new law. A 1995 federal law that prohibited smoking in enclosed areas is largely ignored. "That law wasn’t enforced, it never caught on. That symbol was already incorporated into society but was not respected. Our intention was to create a symbol that was easy to understand, self-explanatory, but different, to spread the message that there was a new law in effect.”

The government asked several publicity agencies to suggest a logo, and the design chosen came from a firm called Lua Branca. The double-trapezoid symbol of Sao Paulo actually dates back to the 1970s, when the city government held a contest to design a logo, and the winner straightened out the jagged curves of the state map’s outline and designed the shape. The only widely visible use of the symbol that survived from that era is in the patterns of many Sao Paulo sidewalks, which have alternating black-and-white versions of it that recall the swishing waves on the famous walkway along Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro.

The sign is not the only thing preventing people from smoking. The law was also accompanied by an advertising campaign and a wave of enforcement by close to 500 state monitors. The agents travel in state vehicles (adorned by the no-smoking symbol) stopping in at restaurants, bars and other spots throughout the day and into early morning hours.

In the first month, they registered a 99.5 percent adherence rate and gave out 198 fines; more recent numbers are unavailable. Of course, they also make sure signs are in place: one team was tickled to find a hand-drawn version of the double-trapezoid on display in a store in a poor neighborhood, according to Caetano. So far, the law is not just accepted but also popular. A recent government survey of state residents found that 94 percent of 1,000 residents surveyed approved of it, including 84 percent of smokers. The least surprising aspect of the survey? Of one thousand people surveyed, 100 percent said they knew about the law.

That sort of unanimous result would normally imply that the government hired the same polling organization that runs elections in North Korea (and, in fact, the governor's office would not provide details about the pill). But in this case, the result might just be legitimate.

With all those signs around, it's as hard to remain in the dark as it is to light up.