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Times are changing for marketers pitching products like cigarettes and beer in Latin America.

Historically open to unfettered advertising of such products, national governments are putting speed bumps and road blocks in the path of commercial speech.

"Every country has its own regulations, and some enforce them more than others," said Joe Ferraioli, vice chairman of Nazca Saatchi & Saatchi, New York. "It's sort of like Europe, but worse."

Venezuela is considered to hold the hardest line against advertising, in part because of Congress' slant in favor of consumer issues, said Reyna Biagioni, a lawyer from the Venezuelan Federation of Advertising Agencies. A bill pending in Congress since 1995 would prohibit cigarette ads in all media. Currently the ban is limited to TV and radio, with cigarette commercials still allowed in movie theaters.

The Venezuelan ad agencies' group is working to stall the bill, which given the country's economic woes, is not a priority to government leaders, Ms. Biagioni said.

"This is a very restrictive environment. There are so many laws," said Ms. Biagioni, who considered the pending cigarette legislation a "threat over us right now. Our aim is to paralyze it. This is a struggle for freedom of commercial expression."

Tobacco also is under fire in Colombia, whose Congress seeks to limit cigarette advertising, mandate health warnings in ads and ban cigarette ads from the back covers of magazines.

On the other side, countries like Chile and the Dominican Republic are among the least restrictive. Chile relies largely on self-regulation. In the Dominican Republic, the tobacco and alcohol industries are barely regulated, due to their dominance of local economies, said Hector Reichard, a San Juan, Puerto Rico-based attorney and specialist in marketing, advertising and distribution rights law.

Somewhere in between are believers in autoregulacion, or self-regulation, a method that has gained favor among marketers and government officials alike as a way to control messages without stifling government laws, said Jose Miguel Gonzalez-Llorente, president of Silec, the Sociedad Interamericana para la Libertad de la Expresi¢n Comercial. The effort combines the efforts of marketers, ad agencies and media to pull ads with questionable content.

Silec and similar ad trade groups have found success with such governments as Mexico, Argentina and even Nicaragua and Venezuela. Silec is used to resolve 99% of advertising conflicts in Chile, he said. Asomedios, the Colombian advertising association and lobby group, is fighting that nation's pending anti-ad legislation.

"If you don't [self-regulate], government will intervene," Mr. Gonzalez said. "There are a lot of regulations in Latin America. It is part of the life there."

Brazil was one of the first countries to adopt self-regulation in the early 1980s. But even in Brazil, where cigarette and alcohol ads are still allowed on TV and radio between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., the government's strong "pro-consumer" sentiment has led to new rules, according to Antonio Fadiga, president of Young & Rubicam, SÌo Paulo. Brazil mandated visual health warnings on tobacco ads in the early 1990s and added audio warnings in 1995.

Ultimately, advertisers and their lobbying groups might want to look northward in their battle against restrictive ad bans, said Mr. Reichard. Often, new advertising regulations come from precedents established in the U.S., and judges who hear legal arguments against such bans rely heavily upon U.S. constitutional case law to determine the merits of such cases, he said.

"When you're opposing any of these trends," he said, "an argument crafted along the lines of commercial free speech seems to carry the day most of the times."

Contributing to this story: Christina Hoag, Caracas; Lake Sagaris, Santiago; Patti Lane, Bogota; Claudia Penteado, Rio de Janeiro.

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