Smoking ban in the Philippines? Just make it more expensive to light up

6 April 2017:

MANILA – I used to smoke – burning a pack and a half a day.

But Singapore cured me of that nasty habit. Eight years of living in the city state showed me all that hassle I had to deal with just to puff a stick – the pricey cigarettes, the disapproving look I got, the long walk outside the office or to a roadside smoking area – were just not worth it.

I didn’t quit cold turkey, though.

First, I tried to trim my consumption. I’d buy a pack, and I’d try to make it last for two days, then three, and then a week. When I got it down to a pack in 10 days, I decided not to buy at all.

That was the beginning of the “begging phase” of my quit-smoking programme. I would peek at a smoking area at the office, see if someone I knew was there, engage him or her in small talk, and then pop the question: Can I have a stick?

I soon realised that while this was acceptable the first time, it was downright pathetic a second time, and just plain abhorrent thereafter.

I got a prescription for that craving-deadening pill Pfizer made, but I never got around to actually buying one. Instead, I tried e-cigarettes.

Those things worked for a while, especially as I could light them indoor. But they aren’t really cigarettes. They produce a lot of smoke and come in a variety of zany flavours: pina colada, magnificent menthol, gold leaf. But the sting it creates doesn’t crawl down the throat, circulate in the lungs, and hit you in the head quite like good old-fashioned nicotine.

So, when its battery ran out and my flavours dried up, I stashed my e-cig inside my drawer and forgot about it.

For a while, I went back to begging. But I didn’t burn friendships as quickly as I did before. I stopped stalking the office for smokers. I smoked only when I went to a pub, where there would be a pack of cigarettes on the table, just begging for me to have a swipe at it.

Then one day, I woke up and realised I had not smoked in a month. I have to confess the reward-syndrome kicked in, and I quickly smoked a stick. But it wasn’t quite the same anymore. It was too bitter, made me choke too much, and it felt like my head was inside a blender. It wasn’t fun anymore.

So, I quit for good, which was well and good now that I am back in the Philippines.

Cigarettes are still dirt cheap here, and many of my friends still smoke. So the temptation is much more ubiquitous.

But thankfully, quitters like me are getting a helping hand from President Rodrigo Duterte, an ex-smoker himself who now regrets ever stuffing his mouth with what may end up killing him.

Mr Duterte is now suffering from Buerger’s disease, a clogging of the veins caused by accumulation of nicotine. He has breathing difficulty and has to sleep next to a medical device called an oxygen converter.


Mr Duterte is now thinking of banning smoking in all public places across the Philippines. He’s planning to replicate what he did in his home city of Davao, where as mayor he once went so far as forcing a tourist, at gunpoint, to swallow a cigarette butt for flouting his anti-smoking ordinance.

He has said that if he can really have his way, the only place anyone can smoke in the Philippines will be 5km from the shore. He’s joking, of course. What he has on his table instead is an executive order that will ban smoking in all places where the public congregates – parks, pubs, malls, bus stations, and even inside cars. Violators will face a fine of 5,000 pesos (S$370), or a four-month stint in jail.

Will that work?

Perhaps. A public health organisation estimates that cigarette-free laws can cut the prevalence of smoking by 4 per cent. Right now, one in three Filipinos smoke. Each lights up about 1,073 sticks a year.

What I think will really get people here to stop smoking is making cigarettes so expensive that anyone who makes just S$15 a day – pretty much everyone who has a job in the Philippines – will think very hard before lighting one.

That actually did it for me. When I first began living in Singapore, a pack of cigarettes cost about S$9. When I left, it had gone up to S$13. It was never an easy decision to buy a pack. That it was expensive was also what made asking for a cigarette a very embarassing experience.

Right now, a pack of cigarettes in the Philippines costs 50 pesos to 75 pesos, about S$2.

Doubling that will make a pack cost as much as a full meal of rice, beef strips and egg. Given that, I think the choice will be easy. But jacking up cigarette prices is easier said than done.

An act of Congress is needed to raise the “sin tax” on cigarette manufacturing and distribution, and Congress has just raised it to as high as what the tobacco lobby said the industry can afford or willing to pay. It is unlikely to go up any time soon. Cigarette prices in the Philippines will remain among the lowest in South-east Asia.

The good news is that efforts to curb smoking, no matter how small, seems to be working. The health department recently reported that more than a million Filipinos have quit smoking since 2009. Here’s hoping the line graph keeps heading south.

As for me, I plan to stay sober. The last thing I want is to mess with Mr Duterte.