Gorillas in the mist 

SEARCH FOR TRUTH - Ernesto P. Maceda Jr. - The Philippine Star

In 2019, the Philippines recorded its first E-VALI (e-cigarette or vaping use-associated lung injury) death. The victim was a minor. In the US, Centers for Disease Control (CDC) statistics as of 2020 showed 2,602 E-Vali cases with 68 deaths.

The minor’s death by E-VALI triggered one of President Rodrigo Roa Duterte’s most famous outbursts. He ordered the arrest of vapers, young and old; threatened the EJK of the “demon” inventor; and waved a PRRD style “restraining order” against judges inclined to indulge the powerful vaping lobby.

PRRD acknowledged the WHO report confirming that electronic nicotine and non-nicotine delivery systems emit aerosol that includes toxic substances that increase the risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and cardiovascular disease. The vape clouds are virgin white but within their folds lurk a hideous beast.

Monkey see, monkey do. E-cigarettes were meant to wean adults away from combustible cigarettes while retaining their nicotine fix via this less hazardous delivery system. Net public benefit justified giving them a way out via a route toward safer addiction. But it actually gave minors a way in. These kids are bound to pick up the smoking habit in adulthood. E-cigarettes are a gateway product to using the real thing.

The nightmare consequence creates a whole new generation of nicotine addicts. According to the US FDA: “Youth use of electronic cigarettes has reached epidemic proportions.” Our DepEd website has cited a study among Grades 7-9 DepEd learners that reveals that 6.7 percent “have tried and are using e-cigarettes.” The top reasons for vaping are online accessibility (32 percent), variety of flavors (22 percent) and the belief that e-cigarettes are safer than tobacco (17 percent).

Planet of the Vapes. With E-VALI showing up everywhere, US states and other countries are clamping down, pending a better grasp of safety concerns. What the Philippines has done, however, is to run the other way. Here we are coming up with a Vape Bill with seemingly no concern for grasping safety.

On flavored products, the existing law, RA 11467, allows only plain tobacco or plain menthol. The new Vape Bill deletes this in-place statutory protection and transfers to the DTI (?) the power to set flexible standards on flavors and additives that they would now inexplicably allow.

US states have hiked the minimum age for e-cigarettes purchase up to 21. If Americans are making it more difficult for the younger generation to get hooked, Filipinos are making it so easy. The Vape Bill would alarmingly lower the threshold access age to 18 when, under the present RA,. 11467, our minimum age is already 21.

The US Senate has approved a bill entitled “Preventing Online Sales of E-Cigarettes to Children Act.” With no mechanisms to verify the age of buyers on the internet, the bill institutionalizes a face-to-face ID check of orders at point of delivery.

Our own Vape Bill’s provisions on online trade are intentionally obtuse. There is no provision on point of delivery ID checks as safeguard despite knowing that online accessibility is the leading reason for youth vape use.

Forty-eight medical associations reject the bill, the Department of Health is against it and the Department of Finance favors a total ban because of the uncertain health implications. For many, the enslavement of the youth is a price too high to pay for the salvation of adults. Even if this means foregoing P1.4 billion in tax revenues, according to Rep. Joey Salceda.

See, hear and speak no evil. So where in the world is this Vape Bill that everyone is talking about?

The same has passed both Houses as early as January. It has taken four months for this turtle to navigate between Speaker (March 30) and Senate President (May 30). It is June and, according to Health Secretary Francisco Duque, the enrolled bill has still not arrived in Malacañang. Is it being withheld from the President until the last minute?

In the US, should Congress adjourn before the President decides to sign the enrolled bill, then the same goes back to the drawing board. With no presidential action, there is a pocket veto. Since Congress has adjourned, then there is no institution to which a presidential veto can be returned for possible override.

In the Philippines, the case is different. You count 30 days from submission to the President. Adjournment of Congress won’t stop the clock. We have no pocket veto. The failure to sign results, instead, in a default enactment.

Last 2016, we witnessed this phenomenon. President Benigno C. Aquino III left 29 bills unsigned. The same lapsed into law during President Rodrigo Roa Duterte’s first month in office including, among others, R.A. 10911 or the Anti-Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

So this is what the Vape Bill is attempting – a sequel.

What would Kong do? The issue here is whether you can ask an incoming president to approve or veto proposed legislation crafted by a previous Congress. If he vetoes the same, who does he submit it back to? Can the succeeding Congress arguably override? This is the entire raison d’etre of the US pocket veto provision. The lawmakers who would act on the vetoed bill are not the same members of the Congress that passed it.

A grey area also is the time frame for forwarding to the Executive what the Legislature has already approved. This puts in perspective the curious delay in forwarding the enrolled Vape Bill to the President.

The metaphor of the mist is apt. The cloud of secrecy and uncertainty may harbor the unspeakable. If this were a Tom Cruise movie, we may see these variables of a likely script: a bill that faces certain veto if transmitted; a non-receptive incumbent President not inclined to act beyond a cut-off date, e.g., June 24; an incoming president who could be more receptive. Possible plot twists: (a) the incumbent decides to act anyway; (b) the incoming president decides not to.

The permutations are enough to make you go ape.

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