(First of two parts)
BAGUIO CITY—Before the pandemic hit, Baguio City had a mission to be “the place where you quit smoking,” said city health worker Dr. Donnabel Tubera Panes.
At the time, city officials had to balance Baguio’s status as an education and tourism center with its public health goals, she said.
By reopening its doors to more tourists this summer, Baguio is focusing even more on achieving this goal, especially after winning the 2021 “Healthy Cities” award from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Alliance for Healthy Cities, an international network that advocates for the health of urban dwellers.
According to the WHO, tobacco smokers around the world face a 40-50% higher risk of developing serious illness and dying from COVID-19 compared to non-smokers. The Department of Health (DOH) has also estimated that 87,600 Filipinos die each year from tobacco-related diseases. WHO country official in the Philippines, Florante Trinidad, said Baguio won the award in the “sharing clean air” category in the Western Pacific region for its commitment to promoting public compliance with laws. anti tobacco.
On February 28, Mayor Benjamin Magalong and other city officials received the award with a ceremonial display of piles of confiscated cigarettes at City Hall.
Magalong, also the country’s czar in charge of COVID-19 contact tracing, said the city was able to effectively implement smoke-free policies because barangay officials, and even ordinary citizens, are reporting violations, ” especially by visitors.
“People are really aware of the very strict anti-smoking ordinance in Baguio City, and we’ve never had any serious issues in implementing it,” Magalong told the Inquirer.
He stressed, “At the end of the day, it’s about enforcing the law without fear or favour. Law of Walang, dapat pantay-pantay lang (No one is above the law).
There were no shortcuts to this victory, however. It took nearly 10 years for Panes and other anti-tobacco champions to push for a strong policy that could tackle the growing prevalence of youth and adult smoking.
This, even when Baguio became one of the first cities to have a smoke-free ordinance in the country, two years after US Surgeon General Luther Terry released a definitive report linking smoking to lung cancer in 1966.
The smoke-free ordinance has evolved over the years, expanding its reach from garages and taxis to movie theaters, government offices, meeting halls and churches; no smoking in all indoor places, except in designated areas in 2009; and in 2017, the banning of vaping and the sale of stick cigarettes.
By banning the sale of cigarettes by carton, the assumption was that minors would be discouraged from buying a pack of cigarettes or would not be able to afford one.
A pack of cigarettes now costs around P150, or P7 per stick. Ordinance No. 34-2017, or the Baguio City Anti-Tobacco Ordinance, passed by City Council in April 2017, also prohibits the use, sale, distribution, and advertising of cigarettes and tobacco products. other tobacco products in all public places, as well as the sale of tobacco products within 100 meters of schools.
Thanks to the ordinance, Panes said he was able to reduce the prevalence of smoking in Baguio by 50%, from 34% to 17%.
But getting here has been “a long fight,” said Panes, who had “knocked on the door of every city councilor asking them to endorse the ordinance” since 2000. The ordinance benefited their business interests.
“Tobacco industry interference is very real even in LGUs (local government units). Before the ordinance was passed, representatives of the tobacco industry came to my office wanting to change it. They were there before and after his approval,” Panes said.
Tobacco interference refers to tactics used by the tobacco industry to interfere with the establishment and implementation of public health tobacco control policies.
Panes cited a case where a so-called “Philippine Sari-Sari Shop Association,” made up of non-residents, questioned their rule banning the sale of cigarettes by stick.
City officials asked for help from the elderly, who demonstrated in the streets with gongs and a loud call to protect the ordinance.
“We are not afraid of tobacco interference. Until you have strong policy, the work of the tobacco industry cannot thrive, especially if your goal is to protect people’s health rights,” Panes said.
Safeguard public health
According to a 2015 report by public health and law group Health Justice, tobacco addiction stems from poor implementation and inconsistent enforcement of tobacco control policies.
But there are national and international frameworks that serve as guides for LGUs.
The Baguio Ordinance was introduced 12 years after the Philippines and 167 other countries signed the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC).
The FCTC recognizes “a fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between the interests of the tobacco industry and the interests of public health policy”.
It also discourages incentives to start or run tobacco companies “because their products are deadly.”
But tobacco companies are trying to influence LGUs by funding front groups that could work for their interests on the ground, said Sophia San Luis, executive director of ImagineLaw.
While the tobacco industry has resisted regulation since the 1950s, San Luis noted that it was using the pandemic as an opportunity to “clean itself up” through announced donations of health equipment to governments around the world. .
In the Philippines, the joint memorandum circular between the Public Service Commission and the DOH in 2010 “limits interaction between government officials and the tobacco industry only when strictly necessary”.
But the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance noted that tobacco industry donations “have been accepted and approved by the health sector and enforcement agencies,” such as medical supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE ), donated to government agencies.
“[We have to recognize] that tobacco use contributes to this crisis that we are going through. We have more people who have comorbidities and suffer from respiratory illnesses and are therefore at higher risk of severe COVID and death,” San Luis said.
But for now, Panes and his team are committed to creating a generation of healthy individuals who don’t know what smoking is. “When we were making a Christmas ID card for smoke-free Baguio, my 5-year-old daughter asked me what a cigarette is. So I realized it was possible to create a culture where people don’t know not cigarettes and will not be exposed to anything that harms their health,” she said.
(Editor’s note: This report is produced under the “Nagbabagang Kuwento Special Reports: Tobacco Industry Interference Story Grants Program” program by Probe Media Foundation Inc. and Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids.)
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