MANILA -- Studies show that smoking or tobacco use remains to be the biggest preventable cause of death, disabilities and diseases across nations.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are 7 million deaths due to tobacco use worldwide annually. About 260,000 of these cases are child deaths caused by inhalation of secondhand smoke.
Apart from child deaths due to secondhand smoke, the increasing rate of teenagers using tobacco has increased alarmingly especially in third world countries, such as the Philippines.
The Global Youth Tobacco Survey (GYTS ) said there had been 3.1-percent increase in school children aged 13 to 15 years old who smoke from 2011 to 2015 nationwide. Most of these children are boys.
GYTS is a school-based survey which enables countries to monitor tobacco use among youth and to guide the implementation and evaluation of tobacco prevention and control programs.
Smoking out of curiosity
Thirty-year-old Robbie told Philippine News Agency (PNA) that he started smoking when he entered high school at an all-boys school out of curiosity and peer pressure.
“I started smoking since I was 13. Pero, naging regular ‘yung paninigarilyo ko nung college. So roughly, mga 13 years na (But I started smoking regularly when I was in college. So roughly it’s 13 years already),” he said.
He consumes 10 sticks per day, or two to three packs per week.
Robbie’s case is just one of the increasing number of smokers who has started smoking as minors.
Ralph Degollacion, Health Justice project manager, said this is a dangerous national problem as more and more Filipino youth could get sick and die prematurely due to tobacco use.
“We had a recent survey with the National Youth Commission in 2017. We found that 31.92 percent of Filipino minors smoke tobacco products. This means a nearly nine out of 10 of all smokers start smoking as minors and 98 percent first tried smoking by age 26,” he told reporters in an interview on Monday.
Higher tobacco tax, lesser youth smokers
Degollacion stressed that there is a need for an aggressive measure that will push them to stop smoking –a higher excise tax on tobacco.
“About 54 percent of the youth in our study expressed that they might be encouraged to quit if the price of each stick of cigarette is raised to PHP20.00, take note the term is encouraged only,” he said.
With the changes in the education program, Degollacion explained that the purchasing power of the youth today have changed as many of them have already acquired skills which make them employable in certain industries.
“Aside from the allowance, they have basic income. This means they have more dispensable income they could spend on whatever they want. Still the youth continue to patronize tobacco kahit tumaas ang presyo (even if the price increases),” he said.
Spending PHP500 to PHP1,000 monthly, Robbie told PNA that he does not have any plans of quitting smoking at the moment.
“Kung bente per stick, depende siguro, pero baka maghanap ng ibang alternative like vaping kung talagang hindi na kaya ng budget (If PHP20 per stick, it depends maybe, but I might look for an alternative like vaping if my budget can afford it anymore),” he said.
Degollacion added the ‘tingi’ (retail) culture, or system the sari-sari stores nationwide practiced in, also contributes to the accessibility of cigarettes to the youth.
Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance executive director Ulysses Dorotheo, who was also in the media briefing. said there should be a bill prohibiting tingi or selling cigarettes per stick.
SEATCA is a multi-sectoral organization established to support member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in developing and putting in place effective tobacco control policies.
“Other Asian countries have prohibited selling of cigarettes per piece Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia, Brunei, Thailand and Vietnam. Just us and Indonesia allow selling per piece,” he said.
Meanwhile, Robbie told PNA that price increase and prohibition of selling cigarettes per piece might not keep smokers like him from quitting totally.
"Hindi malaking factor ang price. Kung pagbabawal ang tingi ng batas, may bibili pa din ng per pack, pero siguro talagang titipirin na lang (Price is not a big factor. If the law will prohibit tingi, there are still people who will buy per pack, but they will scrimp on smoking)," he said.
While such prohibition could minimize the accessibility of cigarettes to the youth, Dorotheo stressed that government officials must focus on higher excise tax on tobacco products.
"It is much easier for the government to impose tax which will result to price increase and then the price increase will be the one to get the public health benefit," he said.
Dorotheo added that reform of tobacco excise taxes in 2012 reduced the number of adult smokers by 20 percent nationwide from 2009 to 2015.
This translates to more than one million Filipinos with less risk of cancer, heart disease, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
On Nov. 27, the House of Representatives already approved a five-peso increase on the current PHP32.50 excise tax per pack of cigarettes.
Nonetheless, Degollacion and Dorotheo, together with other health advocates, are still pushing for the 90-peso tax on tobacco products.
"That amount will increase the PHP12 billion revenues per year to PHP17.4 billion. (Senator Manny) Pacquiao's PHP60 proposal (per pack) would increase it to PHP43 billion and that's the minimum we want for Universal Health Care funding, but it will not give the desired decrease in the number of smokers," Dorotheo said.
On the other hand, Degollacion said they are pushing for at least PHP10 per stick selling price if the PHP20 is not possible at the moment.
"We wanted that when the President finishes his term, we are able to decrease the number of smokers by a million because we also need to take into account the population growth," he said.
When asked whether the inclusion of graphic warnings in cigarette packs has been effective in addressing the tobacco use among the youth, Dorotheo said it has helped decrease the number of smokers but limiting the accessibility of tobacco products to the young people could result in a more substantial result.
Robbie said such graphic warnings do not really make habitual smokers like him quit smoking for health reason, adding that he has a friend who keeps smoking despite having blood cancer.
"It depends on the person. Nakakadiri yung ibang pictures, pero di mo naman tinititigan 'yun. I guess wala namang nag-yoyosi na would blankly stare sa kaha ng sigarilyo (Some of the pictures are disgusting, but you won't look at them anyway. I guess no smoker would blankly stare at the cigarette pack), he said. (PNA)