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Smoked out

SMOKERS BEWARE.  The Metro Manila Development Authority has announced that starting May 30, they will strictly enforce provisions in Republic Act 9211, the Tobacco Regulation Act of 2003, banning smoking in public places.  That includes bus terminals, waiting sheds, schools, recreational places, public utility vehicles.

You’ll get a warning the first time, then a fine of P500 (or eight days of community service) for the succeeding violation, escalating to P1,000 and P5,000.

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The Internet e-groups and blogs are full of indignant protests from smokers and predictions that this just will become another source of corruption, i.e., the MMDA going after smokers only when they need kotong, oops, I’m sorry, I meant merienda.

Is the MMDA serious here?  They better be because this is an old law that just hasn’t been enforced.  The MMDA’s new-found enthusiasm seems to have been spurred by a P9.5-million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies to create a smoke-free Metro Manila by 2012.  Let’s hope they do put teeth into RA 9211.

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And while we’re at it, we should look at other anti-smoking laws that are observed more in breach.  At UP during a recent forum at the College of Law no less, someone asked why there were so few smoking areas in the college and that this was an infringement of human rights.  I was moderating the forum and was shocked at the question. I hope the question wasn’t from a law faculty member, but even if it came from a student, it would still have been a disturbing instance of ignorance of the law: there is a Civil Service Commission directive that bans smoking in government institutions, which includes UP.  That means there shouldn’t even be smoking areas within the premises of government offices or institutions, including outdoor areas.  If you want to smoke, you have to leave the premises and now watch out for the MMDA enforcers.  (I hear some local governments like Maasin are also serious about implementing RA 9211.)

The rationale for all these bans is one of public health, the evidence now overwhelming that non-smokers can suffer the adverse effects of tobacco’s chemicals through second-hand smoke.  These adverse effects include cancer, chronic respiratory diseases like asthma and emphysema, and heart disease.  Young children and the elderly are especially vulnerable to the harmful effects of second-hand smoke.  In total,  the World Health Organization estimates that about 80,000 deaths each year in the Philippines are linked to tobacco use, first- and second-hand.

Non-smoking norm

Besides that angle of protecting non-smokers, I feel that we actually help the smokers as well because in the long run, the best way to help individuals reduce or give up smoking is to smoke them out, meaning reduce the spaces where they can smoke.  Put another way, if smoking is a bad habit, then introduce an alternative, a non-smoking national habit. I still remember a time when smoking wasn’t just tolerated but encouraged.  It was considered rude, for example, to smoke and not to offer someone a cigarette, somewhat like our “kain na”  (“let’s eat”) habit.

This very positive attitude toward smoking extended into spaces, meaning there was no such thing as a no-smoking area. Imagine the effect on young people, seeing their teachers smoking while teaching, which I did until I quit in 1992.   There were professors who used a pipe, which was supposed to be part of the wise professor look.

But smoking in schools wasn’t the worst case.  Smoking was allowed too in hospitals, with doctors themselves smoking.  This happened for several years even after the dangers of smoking—primary and second-hand—were established.

As  the evidence on smoking’s harmful effects began to accumulate, the pressure to create non-smoking spaces began to increase.  Airlines introduced smoking and non-smoking cabins, which was actually ridiculous when you think back now because there were still people smoking in the rest of the plane, sending their toxic fumes throughout the airline cabin.  I still remember a flight on Lot, a Polish airline, where the left side was for smokers and the right for non-smokers.

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Today I can’t think of any airline that allows smoking anywhere on the plane, and the smoking ban has since extended to other transport vehicles. Officially, in the Philippines, you can’t smoke in any public transport vehicle, but jeepney and bus drivers themselves are the first to violate that law, not knowing their vulnerability to lung and heart diseases is horribly high, given the lethal combination of gasoline and tobacco fumes.

The spread of no-smoking areas is important for creating a “no-smoking” culture.  If someone hasn’t started to smoke, especially a younger person, there are fewer positive social signals to get them to start. In my time, large crowds of smoking adults, especially at family gatherings, made smoking attractive and glamorous.  Today, young children will express disgust when they see a smoking adult.

Inviting cues

No smoking areas are important, too, for smokers trying to quit. Smokers light up when they get social cues “inviting” them to smoke.  It can come even from seeing an ashtray, which ends up almost as an invitation—“Come, smoke and use me.” The cues come, too, from seeing other people smoking and socializing.  It’s different when you “exile” smokers to designated areas, such as those in airports, where the smokers end up looking rather miserable, cramped together in a small room.  I think these rooms should have a label: “Danger: Smokers’ Area. Beware of High Carbon Monoxide Levels.”

Alas, we continue to have too many positive cues for smoking. Advertising is a very powerful “let’s light up” cue; so, many countries have banned smoking ads, as well as promotional campaigns, such as cigarette manufacturers as sponsors for sporting events.  The cigarette companies deliberately choose these events because the athletes are glowing with health, an image which is then linked to smoking.

It will take several more years to get a non-smoking culture rooted. Even in developed countries, with strict enforcement of anti-smoking laws and massive anti-smoking education in schools, young people are still taking up the habit.  One reason I quit was my nephew visiting from Canada and almost pleading, when he’d see me smoke, “Uncle Mike, smoking’s bad.”

Today, he is in his early 20s, and smokes.

It’s tough in part because smoking is actually a form of drug dependency, the culprit being the chemical nicotine.  Perhaps in the long run, the most effective way to get fewer people to start smoking, and to get smokers to quit, will be economic: just keep increasing taxes on tobacco products so they become very unaffordable. Our anti-smoking groups should try to trace back how cigarette prices have risen through the years, compared to other essential commodities or services.  I suspect the inflation rate for cigarettes has always been much lower than for food, education or health.

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Email: [email protected]

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TAGS: columns, diseases, health, Michael tan, opinion, smoking, tobacco
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