Despite successive increases in excise taxes on tobacco products, the Philippines continues to have one of the highest smoking rates in Asia, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Data from the latest WHO global health observatory revealed that the country still has 16 million adult smokers who comprise 23% of the total adult population. However, around 77% of them were looking to stop smoking or have tried quitting.
Today, there are one billion cigarette smokers globally, with Asia being home to over 50% of the world’s tobacco users. Tobacco kills more than seven million people each year, and eventually one out of every two smokers.
Based on a recent Euromonitor report, nearly 19% of all deaths in the Philippines are attributable to smoking-related ailments such as hypertension, lung cancer, and cardiovascular disease. It is quite alarming to know that roughly 10 Filipinos die from smoking-related causes every hour.
Having quit smoking with difficulty in early adulthood, I can commiserate with millions of people seeking safer alternatives to combustible tobacco. Studies have shown that on the average, a person makes more than 30 attempts before successfully quitting.
Fortunately, more countries are encouraging smokers to switch to less harmful products like smokeless or heat-not-burn tobacco, e-cigarettes, and liquid vapes. To date, 62 countries have allowed the sale of these smoking alternatives.
The introduction of heat-not-burn sticks in Japan has resulted in a 27% drop of cigarette sales in just two years. Smoking prevalence likewise declined drastically in the US, Britain, and Sweden because of the switch to vaping.
In the Philippines, a partnership between Gokongwei-owned Better for You Corp. (BFY) and the leading American vapor brand has introduced the Juul portable vaping device with pods and a patented temperature control design to the local market.
Juul Labs was co-founded by Stanford University graduates Adam Bowen and James Monsees, who launched their invention in 2015 after a decade of research and development conducted in California’s Silicon Valley.
Mr. Bowen was in Taguig City last month for the BFY launch at McKinley Hill and held a dialogue with Filipino start-up firms in Bonifacio Global City. He disclosed during a media interview that Juul’s unique design resembling a sleek thumb drive went through a thousand prototypes and dozens of consumer panel discussions before the final version was approved.
Addressing concerns about underage use of its for-adults-only products, Juul Asia-Pacific President Ken Bishop said they adhere strictly to a marketing code of conduct under which selling is done through reputable retailers; no non-smoker can be sold the products; no presence in social media; thorough age verification via government-issued identification cards; simple packaging with prominent nicotine labelling; and a “secret shopper” program.
BFY President Nilo Mapa also gave an assurance that they will comply with administrative orders from the Department of Health as well as the new excise tax on e-cigarettes to be implemented by the Department of Finance starting January 2020.
On an annual basis, the Philippine smoking epidemic translates to some P270 billion in health care costs and productivity losses equivalent to almost 2% of the country’s gross domestic product.
Continued tobacco dependence is therefore a major development issue that has impacts on productivity and the economy. Switching to alternative products would hopefully reduce the number of Filipino smokers significantly, while proceeds from the rising “sin taxes” will help fund the country’s universal health care program and lead to a better quality of life for all.
J. Albert Gamboa is CFO of the Asian Center for Legal Excellence and Chairman of the FINEX Golden Jubilee Book Project.