Teenagers are important to tobacco companies because once addicted to nicotine, they become lifelong customers. A 1981 internal memo from a tobacco company says: “Today’s teenager is tomorrow’s potential regular customer…”
Tobacco control among adolescents (13-15 years old) is already a big problem in the Philippines, with a prevalence of 10% and preadolescent initiation of 12%. To compound this problem, even more Pinoy teens use electronic smoking devices (ESD) (14%), with a high of 21% among teens.
The ESD market in the Philippines, estimated at around $75 million in 2020, is expected to reach $115 million by 2023. The ESD market value of only four ASEAN countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam) is expected to grow from $631 million in 2020 to $757 million in 2023.
Amid this booming business scenario, protecting young people from nicotine addiction is paramount. the World Health Organization (WHO) Report on the Global Tobacco Epidemic 2021: Addressing New and Emerging Productssays there are around 16,000 unique flavors available in some markets, more than half of which appeal to kids and teens.
A recent survey by ASH Philippines of online ESD sales revealed vaping products targeting young people with a range of flavors such as strawberry, watermelon, candy, rainbow, mango and lychee ice cream, and using popular childhood icons such as Mickey Mouse and Pikachu. These online sales lack meaningful age verification processes, as also reported by Vera Files.
Existing Philippine laws to regulate ESD already provide safeguards to protect public health, especially young people. Republic Act (RA) 11467(a) prohibits sale to non-smokers and anyone under the age of 21; (b) limits flavors to tobacco and regular menthol; and (c) instructs the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to regulate the manufacture, import, sale, packaging, advertising, and distribution of such products. RA 11346 also requires graphic health warnings on all ESDs, while Executive Order No. 106 extended the nationwide smoking ban to cover ESDs.
However, the recently approved vaping bill (consolidated version of Senate Bill 2239 and House Bill 9007), currently awaiting Presidential signature or veto, will reverse these policies and make these products more widely available by lowering the minimum age for access. 21-18, allowing sales to non-smokers, allowing online marketing and sales, allowing multiple flavors appealing to teens, and replacing the FDA with the industry-friendly Department of Commerce and Industry , as the regulator of these harmful products.
Doctors and public health experts led by the Philippine Medical Association have condemned the bill, calling it “a betrayal of the Filipino people” and that it is anti-health, anti-youth and anti-child. Seven former health secretaries were unanimous in their rejection of the vaping bill, saying it is a huge step backwards in protecting the health of Filipinos, especially in the face of a pandemic.
The vaping bill, if approved, has implications beyond the Philippines. First, it deviates from the ASEAN view of healthy lifestyles and dismisses the importance of tobacco control in achieving our common sustainable development goals.
Given the transnational harm caused by the tobacco industry, controlling the tobacco epidemic – and non-communicable diseases – on a large scale requires concerted efforts between governments. No government can do it alone; When a country rolls back its more progressive tobacco control policies, it hurts progress within its borders and also undermines public health in other countries.
The Philippines has agreed to a common regional and global health agenda and must remain true to their agreements, especially their commitments under the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control which the Philippines ratified in 2005.
More than 45 countries, including six ASEAN countries (Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand) have already banned ESD. The ASEAN region is home to 124 million smokers and grapples with the health and economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Philippines does not need a new generation of nicotine addicts. – Rappler.com
Dr. Ulysses Dorotheo is an internationally renowned Filipino tobacco control advocate with over 25 years of experience in patient care, education and advocacy. Currently, Dr. Yul is the Executive Director of the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA) and a member of the WHO Civil Society Task Force on Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) and the Tobacco Expert Group of the World Heart Federation.