Businesses, tobacco group challenge Baguio law banning sale of cigarettes by the stick
BAGUIO CITY –– Anti-smoking proponents on Wednesday (Sept. 18) argued with local businessmen and a tobacco industry lawyer, who challenged the city’s 2017 “smoke-free ordinance,” that penalizes huge retailers and small village stores for selling sticks of cigarettes instead of a whole pack.
Ordinance No. 34-2017 was enforced only in the middle of this year, because the local government delayed its implementation twice to give the public and the business community time to adjust to the new regulations, according to the city’s business licensing office during a public hearing.
Heeding Republic Act No. 9211, the national tobacco regulation law, smoking and vaping have been banned in all Baguio public spaces and government facilities.
The ordinance also states that cigarettes may not be sold by stores that are near schools, churches and government buildings, which have affected small and big retailers as well as convenience store chains.
But the local provision requiring vendors to sell only packs of cigarettes was characterized as “anti-poor” by Francis Manuel, president of a local sari-sari store association.
Manuel said he represents micro-industry businesses, which would suffer from the city’s aggressive health campaign.
This sales prohibition, as well as penalties, which include jail time, were “onerous” because the ordinance went beyond the spirit and scope of the national tobacco regulation law, according to a lawyer representing the Philippine Tobacco Institute.
The Baguio ordinance punishes smokers and individuals caught using electronic cigarettes outside designated smoking areas with fines of as much as P3,000 or three-month-long prison sentences.
Vendors who violate the restrictions may be fined up to P5,000 or serve three months in jail.
The ordinance does allow offenders, who are unable to pay their fines, to render community service.
So far, only fines have been collected by the city government, although the number of offenders was not presented at the hearing, city officials said.
The public hearing was led by Councilor Betty Lourdes Tabanda, chair of the council committee on laws, human rights and justice, following complaints that flooded the office of Mayor Benjamin Magalong.
Many of the businesses near the prohibited zones complained that they were permitted to sell cigarette products at the start of the year only to be subjected to the crackdown in the middle of 2019.
Manuel insisted that the plight of small vendors and the underprivileged sector of the city should have been a concern of the city government.
Some residents are too poor they could only afford a stick of cigarette, he said, much like households would purchase sachets of condiments or hair products when they stretch their weekly budgets.
“That’s why we passed this law. Poor people still buy cigarettes and end up paying more for medical treatment,” replied Councilor Joel Alangsab, who sponsored the ordinance.
Manuel also questioned the ordinance for prescribing the confiscation of cigarettes sold by entrepreneurs in prohibited zones, arguing that tobacco products were not illegal commodities like narcotics.
He said small traders spent most of their capital on their stocks so confiscated tobacco should be returned to the offenders.
Alangsab said the previous council considered the “general welfare” of the Baguio community when it passed more stringent regulations against smoking and the sale of tobacco in the mountain city.
According to a statement released by the city health office, 7,701 patients have died from 2014 to 2018 due to tobacco-related diseases in the city.
“These are not just numbers. They were senior citizens, parents, uncles and aunties, and even children, who were exposed to first hand and second-hand smoke,” said Dr. Donnabel Tubera, who heads the city’s epidemiology and surveillance unit.
During the same period, Baguio hospitals treated 129,692 patients ailing from diseases attributed to smoking, she said.
The latest Baguio Adult Tobacco Survey and a 2016 Global Youth Tobacco Survey (GYTS) conducted by the Saint Louis University show a sharp decline in the number of Baguio smokers due to a sustained “smoke-free” campaign backed by parents and schools.
The surveys, however, indicate that schoolchildren were still exposed to an environment filled with smokers, either at home or near facilities where smoking has been prohibited.
The GYTS says 1 of 3 students surveyed live in homes with family members who smoked.
The GYTS says 31.40 percent of the students surveyed have smoked, while 20.72 percent indicated they continued to smoke.
The survey says many started smoking at the age of 14 and 15 years old, usually by buying a stick from sari-sari stores, Tubera said during the hearing.
The survey says half of the students who admitted quitting the habit indicated they were concerned about their health.
“Maybe sari-sari stores should consider investing in healthier products instead. They should sell other items instead of tobacco,” said a Baguio parent, who addressed the hearing.
Tabanda said she had noted the observations by the tobacco traders and said her committee may consider pursuing amendments to the city’s no-smoking ordinance or draft internal rules and regulations to address the concerns of businessmen./lzb
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