Whether they choose to light up their first cigarette on their own or are unwitting victims of passive smoking, young people are increasingly at risk from tobacco exposure.
'The younger a child starts to smoke, the greater the chances of becoming a regular smoker,' said Dr Maricar Limpin, executive director of the non- government group Framework Convention on Tobacco Control Alliance Philippines (FCAP), during a media forum on tobacco use in the Philippines, held on Feb. 12 in the Philippine capital Manila. 'The youth are being specifically targeted by the tobacco industry as future customers.'
Among Filipino youth aged 13 to 15 years, three in 10 currently use tobacco products, smoke cigarettes, chew tobacco and use ‘shisha’ (a water pipe for smoking), which is gaining popularity in Mid-Eastern restaurants in select urban areas in the country.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) 'messages that tobacco kills is not very relevant to young smokers, who believe themselves to be immortal. By the time they understand the health risks and are ready to quit smoking, addiction has taken hold.'
Furthermore, young people are regularly exposed to second-hand and even third-hand smoke, the residue left in a room after someone smokes, which often sticks to furniture and clothes. Infants and young children who play with items that have been exposed to cigarette smoke can eventually develop asthma and other smoking-related diseases.
Based on the Global Youth Tobacco Survey (GYTS), a school-based survey that tracks tobacco use among young people across the world, the Philippines has one of the highest percentages of young smokers across Asian countries. About 30 percent of adolescents in the Philippines' urban areas smoke. Of these, more than 70 percent started smoking between the ages of 13 and 15.
The GYTS was developed by the WHO and the Center for Disease Control, a U.S. federal health agency. Data are compiled by participating countries and released in different years. The latest Philippine study was conducted in 2007.
In other Asian countries, figures are much lower. Country reports indicate, for instance, that Indonesia has 12.6 percent students who 'currently smoke cigarettes' and Thailand, 11.7 percent.
In South-east Asia alone, the Philippines has the second highest number of smokers, noted FCAP, one of the organisers of the recent tobacco forum. Over a third of the country’s 90 million population smokes cigarettes.
'Children are the most vulnerable to second-hand smoke, which is six times more poisonous than mainstream smoke. Cigarette smoke is being imposed on them even if they don’t like it. This is a violation of their right to remain healthy and breathe clean air,' said Dr Limpin.
About six in ten children live in Filipino houses where other people smoke. Figures from FCAP further show that about 200,000 young Filipinos will suffer from smoking-related diseases early on in their lives, and about 80,000 will perish from it.
Globally, WHO estimates that 250 million children alive today will eventually die from tobacco-related diseases.
Despite a Philippine ban on selling cigarettes to minors aged 18 and below, more than half of the country’s youth can easily buy cigarettes in stores. Enforcement remains weak as most cigarette vendors do not know the law or refuse to enforce it for fear of losing business, according to Dr Limpin.
'Tobacco companies don’t care about existing users. They’re addicted already and will continue to buy cigarettes. They need to replace all those consumers who will eventually die,' said health undersecretary Alex Padilla during the forum.
He added that when it comes to cost, the Philippines has gained a reputation for having the highest-priced medicines and cheapest cigarettes in Asia. In the United States, a standard pack of cigarettes averages $4.50 to $5, including taxes. In the Philippines, a pack of 20 cigarettes costs roughly 35 to 40 pesos (80 U.S. cents).
The cost of each cigarette stick hawked on the streets is about the same as that of a piece of candy or gum. About 70 percent of cigarette sales in the country come from single stick sales (about two pesos or less than one U.S. cent apiece), reported ‘Tobacco Reporter’ Magazine in 2008. Many of the cigarette vendors on the street are children.
Accessibility and cheap prices bring cigarettes closer to the youth’s grasp, so they often get introduced to smoking at early ages. The youngest child that FCAP has on record was only six years old when he started smoking.
The Philippines’ Tobacco Regulation Act of 2003 bans cigarette advertisements on television, radio, cable, print and billboards except within 'point of sale retail establishments.'
The law stipulates that the ban on advertising was supposed to take place in January 2007, but the total ban on advertising only took place in July 2008.
Tobacco companies have been able to skirt these advertising bans by employing creative tactics. Creative marketing strategies employed by tobacco companies, such as product placements and posters in visible areas like restaurants, malls, community stores, smoking lounges, and sponsorships in concerts, also add to the brand recall among the youth, said FCAP.
Another example of a subtle product placement is commercial outdoor parasols bearing the signature colors and brand names of cigarettes. Cigarettes are also sold openly in convenience stores and mall kiosks.
FCAP has been lobbying Congress to pass the Graphic Health Warning Bill, which will require cigarette manufacturers to put warning images depicting diseases and disabilities people can get from smoking on cigarette packs.
Philippine lawmakers, particularly those hailing from the tobacco farmlands in the northern parts of the country, have opposed the proposed legislation, saying it would adversely affect the tobacco farmers’ income and the economy in general.
At present, cigarette packs in the Philippines carry warning labels that read, 'Cigarette smoking is dangerous to your health.' FCAP said text warnings are not effective because smoking prevalence in the country is still increasing.
Scientific and international studies show that graphic health warnings have been effective in reducing smoking in other countries.
'Consumers know that smoking is bad for their health, but they don’t know why it is. Graphical health warnings will show consumers clearly the effects of smoking and hopefully deter children from starting to smoke,' said Bobby del Rosario, vice-president and founding member of FCAP.
Some countries like Australia, New Zealand and Mexico have implemented graphic health warnings on cigarette packs, covering up to 60 percent of the packaging face. In Britain, half of the packaging reads 'Smoking kills.'
Meanwhile, advocates stress the urgency of putting preventive measures in place, as tobacco companies shift their focus from developed to developing countries.
'Markets in developed countries are declining. That’s why companies are targeting emerging economies like Asia and Africa, which are less literate and more corrupt,' said del Rosario.
The Department of Health cited the need to educate the mass-based retailers so they will stop selling cigarettes to minors. Cigarette affordability must also be addressed, it added.
'We have to put the cigarettes beyond the reach of the youth and that may be (done) by increasing their prices. While graphic warnings may work, the more effective way to address the problem is by increasing taxes and prices for cigarettes,' said the health department’s Padilla.
'What we only are trying to achieve is to minimise the introduction of tobacco to the youth as they are the prime targets of these tobacco companies.'
© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service
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