‘Will the President please stop smoking?’

Miriam Grace A. Go

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Int’l meet points to importance of 'leadership' if governments are to fight off tobacco industry influence

SINGAPORE – If Philippine President Benigno Aquino III were seated at the ballrooms of the international convention center here Wednesday morning, he would have squirmed.

A Thai professor in the audience proffered a suggestion to a panel of health ministers and ambassadors in a talk moderated by no less than World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Margaret Chan: “Can presidents stand up to say, ‘I’ve quit smoking, follow me’? We need leadership in every country.”

The professor is among 2,500 experts and advocates of tobacco control who are gathered here to share strategies on exposing and fighting what Chan calls the increasingly “open” and “extremely aggressive” attempts by the tobacco industry at influencing policy making in some 20 countries.

And the talks—the 15th in 45 years, and focused this time on the tobacco industry’s lobbying or taking governments to court to prevent or nullify tax increases on their products, no-smoking programs, advertising bans, and graphic health warnings on packages—inevitably put the spotlight on national leaders.

“The problem is with the enforcement of smoke-free-environment laws, no matter how good these are. How do we tell young people not to smoke when the prime minister smokes, the health minister smokes, the university president smokes?” said another advocate from the University of California in San Diego.

In a pre-conference workshop Tuesday, Chris Bostic of the Framework Convention Alliance, which monitors the compliance of signatory countries to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, said that unless governments deal first and foremost with the treaty’s Article 5.3, they will face difficulties in the other aspects of the tobacco control campaign.

Article 5.3 refers to the direct and indirect interference of the tobacco industry in policy making.

Calls are being made in this conference for more concerted and innovative efforts worldwide to counter the tobacco industry’s efforts to influence governments, citing the number of deaths that its products have been responsible for.

Matt Myers, president of the US-based campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, pointed out that more than 100 million died of smoking-related diseases in the last century. If current rates are sustained, 1 billion people will die by the end of the 21st century.

Policies vs actions

The Aquino government has asked Congress to restructure the excise tax system on tobacco for the billions of pesos in additional revenues this would bring. This is a move that local advocates also hope will discourage smokers and would-be smokers from buying anymore cigarettes, since it will increase the prices.

The Civil Service Commission and the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority under this Aquino administraton have also moved to implement total smoking bans in government offices and public spaces, respectively, although it’s unclear if this is observed within the walls of the presidential palace.

Aquino is known to smoke at least a pack a day and, according to a Cabinet member very close to him, avoided long flights at the start of his term because the longest he could stand without puffing a cigarette was 3 hours.

A number of Palace employees have complained, too, of heavy smoking by other officials he appointed, among them Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr., even in enclosed and air-conditioned rooms in Malacañang.

For experts and advocates, however, the example set by leaders and figures of authority will be a bigger boost to any anti-tobacco campaign, especially since the tobacco industry is more aggressively targeting the youth market.

As of 2007, according to the Global Youth Tobacco Survey of the WHO, there are 4 million Filipinos ages 13-15 who smoke.

In an anti-smoking rally in July last year, college students in Dumaguete City waved a poster of President Aquino holding a cigarette, with the slogan, “What P-Noy can’t do, we can. Stop Smoking.”

Uruguay’s example

Uruguay’s experience was cited in the discussion—its tobacco control program made great strides during the presidency of Tabare Vazquez, an oncologist who expectedly “understood the science” of how tobacco harmed the public’s health.

The responsibility to set an example might very well extend to other figures of authority, such as health professionals, according to authors of the newly launched 4th edition of the Tobacco Atlas published by the American Cancer Society and the World Lung Foundation.

Michael Eriksen, lead author of the atlas, said they found it necessary to collate data on tobacco use among health professionals and medical students to help these people “quit smoking as individuals, as counselors, and as role models.”

Health professionals “who are smokers are less likely to advise their patients to quit smoking,” the atlas says.

In the Philippines, according to data, 20-30% of those studying to become doctors and other kinds of health professionals are smokers.

The Philippines is among the countries with the cheapest cigarettes, made more affordable to poor people and the youth through “tingi” or per-stick sale.

The President, meanwhile, has said he’s not ready to quit smoking yet, but would avoid lighting a stick in public places. – Rappler.com

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Miriam Grace A. Go

Miriam Grace A Go’s areas of interest are local governance, campaigns and elections, and anything Japanese.