Dateline Manila: How Drilon became an anti-smoking advocate PDF Print E-mail
Friday, 13 June 2014 12:48

BY Sammy Santos


It’s raining cats and dogs here in Manila as I write this column, which is a welcome respite after weeks of punishing summer heat. Don’t get me wrong, I love summer, especially the school holidays that come with it, as it gives you more quality time to spend with your children, nieces, and nephews. But after some time, when you take too much heat so to speak, you begin to miss the rain badly.

Greetings to my special friends who will be celebrating their birthdays: Zamboanga City Second District Rep. Lilia Nuño and his son, Metro Stonerich Corporation founder and president Engr. Bong Nuño, BFF Mariel Rodriguez Celestino, whiskey buddy Eddie Buendia, actor John Estrada, high school batch mates Ike Perez and Eddie Saavedra, childhood friend Nina Zamorano, Ateneo de Zamboanga President Fr. Karel San Juan, Facebook friends Tony Maranon, Mary Jane Bugante, Rose Guan Wee Sit and Rishi Parmanand.

May you all stay forever young.

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Health advocates and anti-smoking lobbyists scored another major victory Monday, June 9, 2014 when the Senate passed on final reading SB No. 27, or the proposed Picture-Based Health Warning Act, which will require cigarette companies to put picture-based warnings on the negative health effects of smoking on cigarette packs.

Already a practice in countries such as Singapore, Thailand, and Brunei, the imposition of graphic health warnings at the front part of cigarette packages will discourage potential smokers from getting hooked on the vice as the warnings will show the dangers of tobacco, including passive smoking.

This is not the first time Congress enacted anti-smoking legislation under the administration of President Aquino, ironically himself still a smoker. In November last year, the 15th Congress passed the sin tax reform law that raised taxes on cigarette and liquor products, erasing the ugly stigma that the Philippines has one of the cheapest sin products in the world, owing to a strong lobby from politically-connected industry players.

The sin tax reform law, which has been languishing in Congress in the past 30 years, was signed into law by President Aquino a few weeks later.

Senate President Frank Drilon, a stalwart in the administration Liberal Party, attributed the success in the passage of the sin tax reform law to the political will showed by President Aquino in standing up to the powerful business lobby, which includes his own uncle, Danding Cojuangco, and tobacco magnate Lucio Tan.

Drilon said President Aquino used his popularity and flexed his political muscle to push the bill. At certain times, he personally called up senators and congressmen legislators to muster support for the measure. Needless to say, Aquino allies in Congress, like Drilon and House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr., made the bill a priority measure after President Aquino certified it as urgent.

In the Senate, Drilon was given credit for ushering the passage of the bill, prompting Malacañang issued a statement: “We commend the unshakable commitment of Senator Franklin Drilon who saw this important piece of legislation through this long, drawn out process, and all the senators who voted for the measure.”

How Drilon turned into an anti-smoking advocate is common knowledge in Congress.  Once a smoker himself, Drilon kicked the habit and joined the anti-smoking crusaders when his first wife Violeta Calvo Drilon died of lung cancer in September 1995.

The late Mrs. Violy Drilon, also a brilliant lawyer, was a chain smoker. She died two months after Drilon assumed his first Senate seat.

During the debates on the sin tax reform bill, Drilon said: “That smoking has no known benefit is beyond question. It is costly, it is harmful to one’s health, and it kills. That is a fact that has been proven by countless medical studies. And I know this from experience because my first wife died due to lung cancer.”

“I want to spare our people from the tragedy of losing a loved one. This is why we should discourage people from smoking, and one of the ways to do that is to raise the price of cigarettes and make it less accessible to more people,” he explained.

Poor Filipinos, Drilon explained, suffer more from smoking than the wealthy because they are unable to afford health care when beset with smoking-related diseases. Since they cannot afford proper health care, it becomes the burden of the government to provide adequate care for them.

Actually the Sin Tax Reform Act and the graphic health warning bill are part of the Philippines’ key commitments as a signatory to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), the first international health treaty that aims to protect public health and significantly reduce health costs from tobacco usage.

It is sad fact that tobacco smoking in the Philippines affects a sizable percentage of the population. In the 2009 Philippines’ Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS), it was found that 28.3 percent of the Philippine population are “current tobacco smokers,” as reported by the Philippine National Statistics Office. This figure represents 17.3 million of 61.3 million Filipinos aged 15 and above.

More recently, the Philippines was reported to have the highest number of female smokers among the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), according to a 2012 survey conducted by the Association of Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA). The study also found that the Philippines ranked second in the number of smokers.

Wikipedia also states that the Philippines was reported to be the 15th largest consumer of cigarettes in the world in 2002 and currently has one of the highest smoking rates in Asia, as well as some of the lowest cigarette prices.

The Philippines is home to several major cigarette and cigar manufacturers, including one owned by Philip Morris International. The Philippines ranks second in number of smokers, and has the highest number of female smokers in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The World Health Organization estimates that 10 Filipinos die every hour due to cancer, stroke, lung and heart diseases brought on by cigarette smoking.

On Monday, the anti-smoking advocates under the umbrella of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control Alliance, Philippines (FCAP) commended Drilon and Senator PiaCayetano for “pushing for laws that aim to protect Filipinos particularly the children from the deadly and dreaded effects of tobacco use and exposure to second hand smoke.”

“As health professionals, we know and we see in our clinics the victims of tobacco use and that of exposure to second hand smoke. We need measures like this to help prevent our children from starting smoking at an early age and hopefully prevent them from becoming hooked to a lifetime addiction,” the advocates’ statement said.

I used to smoke three packs of Champion menthol cigarettes when I was a journalist, a habit I picked up when I was a 17-year-old college student in Zamboanga City. I quit 14 years ago when my youngest daughter, Julia, was born and a no-smoking rule was imposed in my house that was strictly enforced by my eldest daughter, Samantha, who was then five years old.

I am grateful for that gift of life.