SEARCH FOR TRUTH - Ernesto P. Maceda Jr. (The Philippine Star) - August 29, 2020 - 12:00am

The death of the traveler from Wuhan last February from Covid-19 was a world’s first. His was the first recorded outside China. We’re now pushing 205,581 in our infections and 3,234 in our death toll. His statistic has since become innocuous. Such is the velocity of obsolescence in pandemics.

There was another, non-pandemic related first death recorded late last year. It was celebrated though overshadowed, understandably. But it was caused by its own epidemic. November saw the DOH confirming the country’s first documented E-VALI (e-cigarette or vaping use-associated lung injury) death. Tragically, the victim was a minor.

Parens patriae. According to the U.S. FDA: “youth use of electronic cigarettes has reached epidemic proportions.” Recall that the minor’s death triggered one of President Duterte’s most famous outbursts. First, he verbally ordered the arrest of vapers, young and adult alike, that smoke in public. Second, he threatened the “demon” inventor with his own EJK. Third, he waved a preemptive PRRD style “restraining order” in the face of judges who might be inclined to issue their own restraining orders.

The President acknowledged the WHO report explaining that Electronic Nicotine and Non-Nicotine Delivery Systems emit aerosol that commonly includes toxic substances. These may increase the risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, and cardiovascular disease.

Pending House bills would regulate e-cigarettes to protect minors. Manila Congressman Benny Abante wants a high hurdle of a 25-year minimum age for use. The dangers of e-cigarettes are uniformly recognized yet none would criminalize the sale and use of the same outright.

The argument is they are less toxic than combustible cigarettes. Hence, it’s also a net positive for adult smokers. But does safer equate to risk free? Will their proliferation reduce the incidence of smoking related illness and deaths? Information deficits concededly make the science uncertain. So how to proceed: precautionary principle or nanny state?

For adults only. The main target market is the adult sector. Individual autonomy and freedom of choice entitle them to their own “bubble” for informed decisions. The products are termed an “off ramp” from traditional cigarette use.

But collateral damage is the youth sector, lured by marketing campaigns unapologetically youth oriented (fruit and candy flavors; packaging as pens or USB drives).  Last year, San Francisco became the first major city to ban the sale of e-cigarettes, nicotine pods and similar devices with no US FDA approval. Several states, cities and communities followed suit. The US FDA ultimately prioritized enforcement measures against unauthorized flavored cartridges (except plain tobacco and plain menthol) with easy appeal to the youth.

Last month, the US Senate passed S.1253, the “Preventing Online Sales of E-Cigarettes to Children Act”. The internet is the most common retail source of e-cigarettes to minors because there are no mechanisms to verify the age of buyers. The bill would institutionalize a face to face ID check of online orders at point of delivery. The Senate also made a policy choice of banning shipments of vape products via the US Postal Service. Users would have to rely on the more expensive, private delivery services for their vices. The US House adopted its version last year.

A puzzlement! When lung power has become critical to survive a virus that causes severe pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome, to even consider e-cigarettes becomes truly unfathomable. Yet this Thursday, the joint House committees on Health and Trade & Industry fathomed it by approving a bill lowering threshold age of use to 18 from the current 21 under R.A. 11467.

We were ahead of the US FDA in that RA 11467 prohibited the sale of flavored vaping products, other than plain tobacco or plain menthol. Now, the committees would delete that in-place statutory protection and transfer to the DTI the power to set flexible standards on flavors and additives. A regulatory gap will open where once there was none.

FDA on my mind. Our FDA is vigilant in disallowing imported rapid test kits and other health related equipment without FDA approval from their home countries. But last year, even without prior US FDA approval, American e-cigarette brands brazenly launched their products in the Philippines.

Even the Department of Finance favors a total ban because of the uncertain health implications. This would have meant foregoing P1.4 billion in tax revenues according to Rep. Joey Salceda. But Congress is open to balancing the health concerns of the youth with the health concerns of the addicted.

Remember their names. Yuka Saso. Bianca Pagdanganan. Dottie Ardina. Sporting news regales us with how these superwomen, with their majestic swings and magical short games, are stamping Philippine class on golf’s world stage. Their stories are welcome diversions in these strange times.

Yuka and Bianca have been recognized in this space for their historic Asian Games performance. The duo, together with Lois Kaye Go, gave us team gold last 2018. Yuka also won the individual Asiad gold. At the Southeast Asian games, Bianca was the individual gold medalist.

Bianca has gone on to compete professionally in the fabled US LPGA. Bianca has consistently contended in her events. She has also topped the stat sheets in distance with her Tiger-esque drives.

Yuka competes in the LPGA of Japan. In competitiveness and prize money, it almost matches the US Tour. In only her second tournament, she ran away with the title at the NEC Karuizawa 72 Championship. Yuka is the first Filipina to ever win on the Japan tour. This weekend, she is again in the hunt at the Nitori Tournament in Hokkaido. She is at second spot after a first round 67.

Dottie has had a stellar jungolf international career. She plays select events of the US LPGA when she qualifies. She played in her first Major last week, the British Women’s Open where she made the cut.

Their exploits are enough to make you deal with the stress a little easier. Every championship they enter also sees the Philippine Flag raised among the flags of nations represented. Mabuhay!

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