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Duterte orders strict smoking ban in Philippines, and asks citizens to help

Duterte orders strict smoking ban in Philippines, and asks citizens to help
Philippines' President Rodrigo Duterte. AP file photo

Duterte orders strict smoking ban in Philippines, and asks citizens to help

MANILA — President Rodrigo Duterte, who has overseen a deadly campaign to eradicate drug use in the Philippines, has now ordered a strict public ban on smoking and called on citizens to help local authorities apprehend smokers.

The executive order, signed early this week and made public Thursday (May 18), prohibits the use of tobacco, including electronic cigarettes, in all public spaces, even sidewalks. It also forbids anyone under 18 from “using, selling or buying cigarettes or tobacco products”.

More than a quarter of Filipinos smoke, according to a 2015 World Health Organisation report, including 11 per cent of minors.

The nationwide measure, known as Executive Order 26, is similar to the near universal smoking ban Mr Duterte put in place in Davao City in 2002, when he was the city’s mayor. A former smoker, Mr Duterte quit cigarettes and drinking decades ago, when he was found to suffer from two rare conditions, Barrett’s oesophagus and Buerger’s disease.

According to the new order, tobacco cannot be sold within 100m of schools, playgrounds or anywhere children might gather. Municipalities must also designate smoking areas that are far from these places, and away from elevators, stairwells, gas stations, health centres and wherever food is prepared. “No smoking” signs are to be posted in all public places.

The order also called on civilians to join a “Smoke Free Task Force to help carry out the provisions of this order” and apprehend and charge violators.

Calling for citizens to enforce the ban raises the spectre of vigilantes carrying out their own interpretation of Mr Duterte’s strict prohibitions, as was reported during his tenure as mayor of Davao dating to the 1980s.

Since taking office last year, Mr Duterte has overseen a brutal anti-drug campaign that has killed thousands of people suspected of being drug users and dealers, often without trial.

Gangs of vigilantes have taken seriously the president’s call to slaughter addicts. And international observers have accused Duterte of encouraging these vigilantes and overlooking extrajudicial killings by police officers.

Violators of the smoking ban in Philippines could face up to four months in jail and a fine of 5,000 pesos (S$139.55), presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said Thursday.

Mr Duterte’s predecessor, Mr Benigno S Aquino III, had signed a law in 2014 requiring bold graphic health warnings on all cigarette packages, but studies show it has done little to stub the vice in this country of 104 million.

The Philippines is the second-largest tobacco consumer in South-east Asia, after Indonesia, according to the Philippines Health Department.

Mr Emer Rojas, a cancer survivor and the president of the anti-smoking group New Vois Association of the Philippines, said he hoped the new measure would significantly cut smoking in a country where it is common to see adults and children smoking on the street.

He said the national smoking ban could also save thousands of Filipinos — smokers and those around them, who endure second-hand smoke — from cancer and other illnesses.

“More will be saved from debilitating diseases and premature deaths and this executive order supports other tobacco control initiatives, such as the graphic health warning law,” Mr Rojas said.

Strict enforcement of a prohibition of tobacco sales to minors has been a challenge for the government. The WHO Global Tobacco Epidemic report in 2015 estimates that 11.8 per cent of Filipinos ages 13 to 15 use tobacco. Small neighbourhood stores in the Philippines commonly sell single cigarettes even to minors, who often say they are running errands for their elders.

In its report, the WHO said higher taxes on tobacco products should accompany anti-smoking laws. The report said that only a few governments appropriately tax tobacco products, missing out on a “proven, low-cost measure to curb demand”.

The WHO estimates that the average pack of 20 cigarettes costs almost 27 pesos in the Philippines, with more than 74 per cent of that figure attributed to taxes. NEW YORK TIMES