Smokers’ lives matter, too

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

The official campaign period that kicks off tomorrow ushers in political activities related to the holding of our national and local elections on May 9 this year. Actually, however, the campaign activities started ahead way back immediately after the filing of certificates of candidacy (COCs) in October last year. That’s how lame our election rules and regulations have become after so many amendments of the Omnibus Election Code.

Passed into law on Dec. 3, 1985 under Batas Pambansa Blg. 881, the Omnibus Election Code is the so-called “bible” of all these rules and regulations implemented and enforced by the Commission on Elections (Comelec). It has since then undergone drastic changes through the years in the many laws that amended provisions tailor-fitted by lawmakers to their advantage.

With the start of the official campaign period, both chambers of Congress have adjourned their sessions last week. It would resume this May 23 to wind down their legislative business. Before they adjourn sessions sine die on June 4, both the Senate and the House of Representatives will convene together for the last time. The 18th Congress will act as the national canvassing body before they officially proclaim the winners of the May 9 presidential and vice presidential elections.

At noon of June 30 this year, President Rodrigo Duterte will bow out of office in Malacañang. By this time, Malacañang should have already started laying down the transition plans for the phasing in of the next administration. With still double-digit approval rating in his last six months in office, outgoing President Duterte made sure his political battles with certain members of Congress did not affect nor sidetracked his administration’s priority legislative agenda.

The passage into law of landmark bills under the Duterte administration’s fiscal reforms served as testimony of how the Chief Executive used very well the political capital he amassed during his term. The President wielded his popular support and secured approval of even the most controversial legislative bills that went through the 18th Congress.

He rose to power with a strong anti-smoking track record as Mayor of Davao City. Today, President Duterte is at the cusp of stepping down from power leaving behind what could yet be the most effective anti-smoking law passed in Philippine history. On the table of the President for his signature is a landmark bill overwhelmingly passed by both chambers. The enrolled copy of the Congress-approved legislation would put in place a comprehensive framework for regulating the use of vapes and other non-combustible nicotine products.

Known as the Vaporized Nicotine Product bill, the measure provides the more than 16 million Filipino smokers who are having a hard time quitting with a much less harmful alternative to cigarettes. But to call it as Vape bill for short is a misnomer to say the least. The word “vape” to me connotes the obnoxious pipe that emits so much smoke.

But there is another device called as electronic cigarette – or e-cigarettes – with lesser smoke emission that can irritate our eyes and get into the air stream we breathe. Vapor products deliver nicotine without burning, without smoke. These products heat liquid nicotine or tobacco leaves to produce an aerosol called vapor.

However, smoking remains as one of the leading causes of preventable diseases in the world. It can lead to serious heart and lung illnesses.

There are more than 7,000 chemicals that are released the moment you burn cigarettes and close to 100 of those are found to be cancer-causing and fatal. Scott Gottlieb, when he was director general of the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) of the United States, publicly said that although nicotine is not completely risk-free and can cause addiction, it is not the primary cause of smoking related diseases. It’s the smoke.

The World Health Organization has said e-cigarettes are not safe products. But a WHO representative who testified in the House of Representatives admitted that compared to cigarettes, e-cigarettes are safer.

For years our Congresses have been passing tough laws against the tobacco industry – higher taxes, gory picture health warnings on packs and a ban on public use – in the hopes of forcing smokers to quit. And yet to no avail. The “cold turkey” quit rate in the Philippines remains very low.

In the recent years, more and more Filipinos have been using these cigarette alternatives.

The Department of Health (DOH) estimates that there are now more than one million vapers in the country. We have seen alarming reports in other countries of minors vaping, people getting sick because of tampered vape products using cannabis oil and exploding e-cigarette devices because of sub-standard quality. It is high time for the government to step in and regulate this growing industry.

The landmark vape bill does exactly that. The bill prohibits individuals under 18 years old to buy them. Why 18? Cigarettes can be legally sold to an 18-year-old under of our law. The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) is mandated to adopt strict quality standards and regulate e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products, lest turn them into another smuggled product like other imported cigarettes.

Our country’s FDA is the sole agency that can authorize medical and health claims on products based on scientific substantiation. Marketing of these products are only allowed to target smokers and current users; not minors or non-users to prevent initiation.

The President’s signing of this bill into law is historic. The Philippines will be joining the ranks of progressive countries like the US, UK, Italy, Switzerland, Bulgaria, Norway, Greece, Portugal, Uruguay and many others that believe in providing smokers better alternatives to cigarettes.

Smokers’ lives matter, too. We have 16 million of them in the Philippines. Case studies, and not just testimonials, have proven many who started smoking at young age were able to finally quit nicotine addiction after transition to e-cigarette.


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