Can the Philippines become a smoke-free country?

The implementation of the Duterte administration’s Executive Order (EO) 26, which enforces a nationwide smoking ban, may have helped reduce smokers in most public places but an expert on the matter says it will take time for the country to achieve smoke-free status.

“In order for us to qualify if the entire country is already smoke-free is to see if every LGU (local government unit) is already complying with even the minimum requirements [based on the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC)] and be able to feel tangible results already within public places, conveyances, and workplaces,” says Action on Smoking & Health Philippines Project Officer Rommel Arriola in an email interview with GMA News Online.

A place that is truly smoke-free is covered by a policy that strictly prohibits people from smoking in public places. At present, the Philippines already has a number of places—from institutions to provinces, municipalities, and barangays—that come as close as possible to being smoke-free because of their active enforcement of the policy.

Arriola says EO 26 helped push the country further to attain smoke-free air or “air in which tobacco smoke cannot be seen, smelled, sensed or measured,” as defined by the WHO. “While it is not a new law, it provides a new directive or instruction for implementing existing smoking bans already found in two national laws and other agency issuances,” he explains. “It may also be helpful in crafting LGU ordinances that have not yet adopted the WHO FCTC standards.”

The creation of a Smoke-free Task Force, which is also under the EO, is seen to impose stricter policies including sales and advertisement restrictions for tobacco products.

Recently, President Rodrigo Duterte signed the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion into law, which includes, among others, the increase of tobacco tax by P2.50 in the first half of 2018.

Health advocates, however, call this a measly hike, as they see the increase may not be enough to rid of smoking in the country. In a phone interview, Dr. Antonio Miguel Dans, cardiology and clinical epidemiology professor at the University of the Philippines College of Medicine, says the hike is “deceptive” as “there is really no health benefit,” as opposed to what lawmakers claim.

“The only thing [the tax hike] assures is that there will be 750,000 new smokers in the country by the end of President Duterte’s term,” he explains, giving a prediction based on the Walbeek Model for Sin Tax Simulation, a “simulation model to predict the fiscal and public health impact of a change in cigarette excise taxes.”

Dans says the recent development on tobacco tax is a “disappointing loss,” but assures staunch health advocates like him will continue to lobby for higher taxes on cigarettes to help reduce smoking in the country.

As for the general public, there are various ways to help the country achieve smoke-free status such as reporting those violating the smoking ban. They can also help out and contribute their talents to campaigns related to tobacco control like Smoke-free Philippines’ Smoke-free Caravan, which is roaming around the country until January 2018 to #Save1MillionLivesNow by helping smokers quit and rallying supporters in its call to #RaiseTobaccoTaxNow.

Smoke-free Caravan is going around the Philippines until January 2018. Photos courtesy of Smoke Free PH Facebook.

Those with “extraordinary connections” may also help in influencing the policy to have a stricter implementation. “Each person’s contribution is much needed, no matter how small,” shares Arriola.

Cover photo from Smoke Free PH Facebook.

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