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Marvin A. Tort-125


During the Prohibition Era (1920–1933) in the United States, when the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcoholic beverages was illegal throughout that country, illicit or hidden establishments emerged to illegally sell or serve liquor. Such a club or bar, called a speakeasy (or a blind pig or a blind tiger) became very popular among both the rich and poor.

Prohibition, it seemed, was more honored in the breach. Speakeasies became profitable businesses, and became milking cows for both organized crime syndicates and corrupt politicians and policemen. The law didn’t stand a chance against the natural inclination of people to indulge in a vice, in this case, letting loose (or drunk) on liquor.

Despite making illegal the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages, the industry persisted. It, in fact, survived Prohibition, which ended in 1933. Some speakeasies successfully transitioned to “night clubs” or supper clubs or cabarets, where all kinds of alcoholic beverages were served, cigarettes and cigars were sold, big bands played live, and patrons danced.

The experience with Prohibition in the US comes to mind in light of what appears to be an emerging Philippine government response to the twin issues of vaping (use of e-cigarettes) and medical marijuana. As for smoking itself (or the use of cigarettes and cigars), the rules are somewhat set, with periodic adjustments in tax and in permitted marketing practices. With respect to use, however, the only “regulation” is the executive order on a nationwide ban on smoking in public places.

The government, through Congress, is now working on similar “regulation” — via taxes and limitations on sale and marketing — for e-cigarettes. As for use, the executive order on a nationwide ban on smoking in public places is also being applied. As for the sale and use of cannabis for medical purposes, regulations were also set via legislation.

In considering new rules for these two relatively “new” industries, I look back to the revolutionary government of Emilio Aguinaldo in 1898 for its practicality. At this point, it is difficult to attribute more sinister designs on the part of government personalities then. However, the way that government acted particularly on the use of opium was groundbreaking during its time, at least in my opinion. And thus, I believe it deserves review and recollection.

I first wrote about this around 13 years ago, stumbling upon an essay by historian Ambeth Ocampo, who pointed out a decree signed by President Emilio Aguinaldo on November 20, 1898. The decree authorized the “limited and contained use” of opium (a prevalent recreational drug at the time) in Binondo, Albay, and Sorsogon.

In Aguinaldo’s time, opium use was deemed a public menace, but Aguinaldo had the practical sense and shrewdness to restrict and regulate and “tax” the vice rather than to prohibit it. The Aguinaldo decree (a presidential decree, if you may) issued to local officials reportedly stated:

“The service of LEASING opium-smoking establishments being in a state of NEGLECT on account of the state of war in which this territory found itself, but which is now under a form of government, it is urgently necessary to establish the same for the double purpose of RESTRICTING it as far as possible on account of the HARM it causes HYGIENE and PUBLIC HEALTH. With the concurrence of the TREASURY department, I hereby order the following:

“1st. Provisionally and until the government shall have AWARDED definitely at PUBLIC AUCTION, the lease of aforesaid service, which shall be effected shortly, after the proper proceedings which the case requires, the same is awarded to the Chinese: Francisco Bonifacio, Nubla Lim Chico, and Felipe Lim, residents of the district of Binondo, Manila, for a term of one month extendible.

“2nd. The same department shall authorize a provisional contract with aforesaid Chinese at the rate of P1,200 per month, limiting the same to the provinces of Albay and Sorsogon, district of Catanduanes.

“3rd. A copy of this decree shall be forwarded to the military and provincial chiefs of the provinces mentioned.

“I have the pleasure of referring the same to you for your information; you will immediately make the award to the Chinese contractors aforementioned and report to this office the date when it is effected; furthermore, you will please order the local chiefs of your jurisdiction to please publish this by posters in the local dialect and acknowledge receipt of the same.”

I may be wrong, but it would seem that this Aguinaldo decree can be considered the earliest form of explicit and official government approval for “vice” actually considered harmful to hygiene and public health. And this was done under the first “independent” Philippine republic, and with public bidding requirements and local zoning restrictions at that. Moreover, government was to earn from the “license” to operate it issued.

What puzzles me, however, is how Aguinaldo decided to provisionally award the opium “service” contracts to a select group of Chinese businessmen for a limited period of one month. I can only surmise that these men supported his revolution, perhaps even helped finance it, and to help them recoup their expenses, were given a limited and time-bound franchise to a profitable business.

So, going back to vaping and medical marijuana, perhaps sale or distribution should require government licenses, both national and local. Excise tax should be imposed by the national government on vaping, just like cigarettes. However, for medical marijuana, considering the use, perhaps it can be made tax-exempt.

But, in addition to taxation and requiring permits and licenses as well as production registration for items to be sold or distributed, local establishments like shopping malls and restaurants and bars can perhaps be made to apply and pay for local permits to build or put up designated “smoking lounges” to accommodate their smoking or vaping customers.

I raised this issue as early as 2018, before vaping became a government target, noting that in the same way that establishments must pay for permits to sell liquor, and separate permits to “serve” liquor, the same should apply to smoking and vaping. In this line, stores should be licensed to sell and distribute vaping equipment and liquids with FDA approval.

Manufacturers or importers of vaping equipment and cartridges should also pay excise taxes, much like producers of cigarettes and sweetened beverages. And places allowing smoking or vaping should pay for local permits to put up smoking lounges, subject to periodic health and sanitary inspection.

As I had written last year, I expressed the opinion that smoking or vaping should be freely permitted in private residences. However, it must be limited to designated, licensed lounges in public facilities and spaces, private and public offices, private commercial buildings, and tourism facilities like hotels and resorts, among others.

If Prohibition had its speakeasies, which later became legal and legitimate night clubs, our era can witness the emergence of properly licensed and regulated, comfortable if not luxurious, smoking and vaping lounges where adults 21 and above can hang, drink, eat, even play video games. Add bowling, billiards, and darts to that. These places should have proper partitions and ventilation for smokers, as well as garbage segregation particularly for cigarette butts, vaping cartridges, and other “smoking-related” items.

Total prohibition, particularly for vaping, simply won’t work. To prohibit vaping means to prohibit cigarette smoking as well. They are, at this point in the government argument, deemed practically the same. Both, without doubt, have harmful effects. Thus, the rules should apply equally to both. But, if government chooses to regulate smoking, then the same should work for vaping as well.

What is crucial, in my opinion, is how we implement the nationwide ban on smoking/vaping in public places, and how we go about creating spaces where people can legally indulge in their “vices” without causing harm to others.


Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council.