Inside Manila’s big tobacco expo
At least 1 in 4 Filipinos, or 28.3% of the population aged 15 years old and over, smoke tobacco

PACKED. Tobacco industry players from all over the globe swarmed on Manila for one of the biggest tobacco expositions in Asia in 2012.

MANILA, Philippines- Manila played host to one of Asia’s biggest meet-and-greet events for the tobacco industry this year, ProTobEx Asia.

Sprawling displays of cigarettes, cigarillos, cigars, e-cigarettes, hookahs and pipes filled a massive tent in the Philippine International Convention Center from March 15-17. 

International audience

Manufacturers, retailers and brands from 26 countries as far as Panama, Poland, Armenia, Egypt, and Spain came to Manila. 

Most brands were looking to expand their reach.

Some were in search of Philippine distributors, like one brand offering clove cigarettes that the US banned in 2009 as part of the US Food and Drug Administration’s regulation against flavored cigarettes that appeal to children.

With its relatively weak regulatory environment, Southeast Asia is considered one of the largest markets for the international tobacco industry. 

Smoking left and right

Attendees puffed cigarettes in the aisles, sampling brands. 

FREE SAMPLES. Cigarette, cigar and cigarillo samples were passed out freely in the venue. 

Heavily made-up women stood by booths to pass out cigarettes and even light them. 

ATTRACTIVE ADVERTISING. In many of the booths, young saleswomen attend to customers.

Entrants to the expo signed a form upon entering, accepting that there would be smoking in the venue. The expo hall in the government-owned center was considered a smoking area.

This was despite the Tobacco Regulation Act of 2003 specifically prohibiting smoking in certain common spaces including, public conveyances and public facilities, like conference halls. 

An anti-smoking advocate from the non-government organization HealthJustice voiced concern that “there are a number of laws that direct smoking bans in specific public places, both indoor and ourdoor, but gaps are being abused.”

PUFFING AWAY. Attendees freely smoked amidst the expo displays.


The latest styles and innovations 

The latest flavors were offered not only for cigarettes, but also electronic cigarettes and hookah, a type of Eastern waterpipe. 

HOOKING NEW AUDIENCES ON HOOKAH. Hookah has gained popularity outside of its native India and the Middle East but has yet to catch on widely with Filipino consumers. 

A range of tobacco products targeting women were on display. There were packs holding ultra skinny cigarettes, others printed with designs aiming to capture the glamor by showing female icons like Marilyn Monroe, and still more with subtle colors and designs on the filter. 


As a 2011 article from The Economist points out, “tobacco firms see growth potential in the region’s (Southeast Asia’s) low rate of women smokers.” 

In the piece Vikram Pathania of the London School of Economics said, “Across Southeast Asia fewer than 1 in 4 women smoke, compared with about 40-70% of men. This is a much bigger gap than in Africa and Latin America.” Already, in the Philippines, cigarettes are sold in small “lipstick packs” that not only appeal to spend-conscious consumers, but to those who want to channel the glamor of high-end cosmetics as well.

REPROCESSING. These steams and small tobacco pieces can be turned into cigar wrappers using new technological innovations.

Those in the industry were able to see and benefit from the latest innovations in packaging and processing. These included even the recycling of tobacco leaves to give pieces of the tobacco plant that aren’t initially used a second life as cigar wrappers or as additional ingredient in other cigarettes. Reforming the unused stems and other parts of the plant is reportedly gaining popularity among large manufacturers because it saves them more money. 

Warm welcome for tobacco unwelcome to advocates

Despite the welcome messages in the ProTobEx brochure from President Aquino and Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez, for some anti-tobacco advocates, hosting the event felt like a step backwards. 

2,000 cancer victims, health advocates, parents and students came out to protest the first day of the exposition on March 15. 

RALLY. Protestors carried banners and wore shirts saying "No deal with the tobacco industry" and "smoking kills" to protest holding the large tobacco exposition in Manila. Photo courtesy of Action for Economic Reforms.

Dr Rachel del Rosario, Philippine Cancer Society executive director said, “This is a national public health disaster, with new tactics and strategies targeting our women and youth. The ProTobEx/Intertabac 2012 expo itself, are looking to expand product choices to include more flavored and smokeless cigarettes, attractive packaging, shrouded in a ‘harmless’ marketing and promotion event that should not be tolerated by our country.” 

“Manila was selected as the venue for the first ProTobEx Asia event after months of in-depth research into potential locations throughout Asia for a number of compelling reasons. The Philippines has a vibrant tobacco industry,” the ProTobEx website read. 

The statement may have appealed to those in the industry but appalled anti-tobacco advocates.

At least 1 in 4 Filipinos, or 28.3% of the population aged 15 years old and over, smoke tobacco, according to The Philippine Global Adult Tobacco Survey conducted in 2009 by the World Health Organization. 

6,575 Asians die every day from tobacco-related deaths according to Bungon Rithiphakdee the director of the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA). –