Opinion: Duterte’s smoking ban is a Pandora’s Box of unintended consequences

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Many smokers are (perhaps not very successfully) holding their breath to see exactly how the new smoking ban will pan out.

Will it be like the ban on plastic bags in Metro Manila? (What? You’ve never heard of it? It’s been on the statute books for five years now. City Ordinance 8282, if you’re interested.)

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Or will the lure of “on-the-spot fines” see police enforce it with a maniacal enthusiasm?

Whichever way it turns out, the smoking ban is an utterly flawed directive and a veritable Pandora’s box of unintended consequences.

First, I want to look at the way the government has presented the Presidential Executive Order. Snazzy little ‘infographics’ have been circulated showing all the places you can no longer smoke.

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Here it lists things like schools, hospitals and gas stations — all places that are almost certainly non-smoking already.

It also announces that under this new law, smoking will (finally!) be banned on aircraft. Well, jolly good, and about time too!

Infographic gives details of smoking ban
Thank goodness the Philippines has finally taken action on smoking aboard aircraft!

Why didn’t they add that you can no longer smoke under water, or inside the womb, or in your grave — just to make things absolutely clear?

What is a ‘public place’?

If they were being honest, they would just say: “You can’t smoke in any public place unless there is a sign informing you that you can.”

And this includes standing in a quiet corner of the sidewalk, or down a deserted alleyway, or in the middle of an empty, windswept park.

Exactly what constitutes a “public place” will no doubt be decided, as and when, by the “on-the-spot” enforcing officers.

Business owners have it even worse, and will struggle to pin down exactly what terms such as “well-ventilated”, “buffer zone” or “serving area” mean. No doubt the enforcers will be out and about with tape measures, waving around licked fingers to measure the breeze.

So, it remains to be seen how it will be enforced, but what are the unintended consequences of the smoking ban?

Economically, the most damaging will be on tourism. I know of at least two frequent visitors from Europe who are rethinking their travel plans. At home they’re used to using comfortable smoking areas outside bars or just ducking out the front door for a minute.

That’s not going to be possible under the new law.

Remember, no smoking on the (heavily polluted) street, and how many Philippine bars have gardens, or pleasant covered areas that are at least 10 metres from…from… well, that’s another vague point.

What about tourism?

But even if these smoking western tourists were replaced by hordes of clean-living visitors, what about the Chinese and Koreans?

The Department of Tourism is in the middle of a campaign to attract millions of extra visitors from these countries and, sorry, but once they start getting fined for lighting up in the street or on the “wrong” part of bar terraces, word will get around and they simply will not come.

But anyway, by then the country’s entertainment districts (and casinos?) — which are a major draw for heavy-smoking Asian tourists — could have been fined out of existence anyway.

Another problem, counter-intuitively, is one of public health. If locals start to be fined when they’re out and about in their barangays or sitting on their front steps, they will smoke more inside their own homes.

The health effect of two parents, several uncles, grandparents and visitors all chuffing away in a tiny house full of kids could be catastrophic.

Now, to be clear — I absolutely agree with sensible restrictions on smoking and I always try to be considerate to others when lighting up.

And, no, I wouldn’t dream of smoking in a hospital, school or plane (I still can’t believe they included that on their poster!)

In my home country, the UK, the 2007 smoking ban took some getting used to (and led to the closure of thousands of pubs) but I’m absolutely happy with how it works now.

Why not legislate ‘off the shelf’?

I’m sure smokers across the developed world, where similar laws are almost universal, would say the same. Some of these laws have been tweaked, and the effectiveness has been measured and compared.

So, the big question: Why didn’t the Philippines identify which country had achieved the best public health outcomes, with the least economic impact, and simply copied their law?

Any reasonably bright intern could have done this in an afternoon, and the cost of photocopying wouldn’t be more than a few pesos.

No need for consultants or statisticians or medical experts — the Norwegians, or Swiss, or whoever has already done all that — just plonk the photocopy on the president’s desk and, stamp, squiggle, it’s done.

Instead they’ve created a total dog’s dinner of a bill, that will either be (totally or selectively) ignored or will kill off the tourist trade and choke a generation of children.

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