As the 18th Congress opens its 3rd and final Regular Session, children’s rights advocates urge legislators to prioritize the deliberation of Smoke-Free Environment Bill.

In his last State of the Nation Address (SONA) delivered before the joint session of Congress on Monday, President Rodrigo Duterte highlighted the passage of the Universal Healthcare Act as part of the Administration’s contribution to health.

“This legacy, however, will be made more meaningful if the President and the 18th Congress will see through enactment of laws that protect the health of the Filipinos, especially during the pandemic,” said Mr. Romeo Dongeto, executive director of the Philippine Legislators’ Committee on Population and Development (PLCPD), the convenor of the Child Rights Network (CRN). Both PLCPD and CRN are members of the Philippine Smoke-Free Movement.

According to the network, the Administration’s historic contribution to tobacco control in the country—including the issuance of Executive Order (EO) No. 26 or the National Smoking Ban, which was further expanded to include e-cigarettes in EO 106, to the enactment of two tax increases on sin products with Republic Act (RA) 11346 and RA 11467—could be further cemented by the enactment of the Smoke-Free Environment Act pending in both houses of Congress, especially now that the country and the rest of the world are dealing with a global pandemic

Upholding children’s right to health, safe environment, and development

Child rights advocates also call legislators’ attention on protecting children living under households and communities exposed to cigarette smoke. They add that cigarette use is also prevalent among the youth, with the Philippines ranking fifth in Southeast Asia with the highest number of youth smokers. The 2015 Global Youth Tobacco Survey (GYTS) also revealed that 16% of Filipino students aged 13 to 15 are smokers.

“Children are the first to be affected by the pollution caused by adults without knowing and consenting to the harmful and life-long consequences of smoking to their health and environment. We owe it to them to continue striving for a smoke-free Philippines to uphold children’s rights and climate justice,” said Roldan Gonzales, Executive Director of GITIB, a Mindanao-based CRN member organization advocating for ecological rights.

Studies show that exposure to cigarette smoke increases the risk of children developing psychiatric disorders and cognitive impairment later in life.

“When children’s safety is compromised because of exposure to smoke, their development is also at risk.,” added Gonzales.

Mitigating Covid-19 with smoke-free environments

According to studies, 25% of patients who were hospitalized for severe cases of Covid-19, admitted to an intensive care unit (ICU), relied on a mechanical ventilator, or who died were all current smokers while 5% were former smokers. With the presence of the delta variant, a highly contagious Covid-19 virus strain, 16 million adult smokers in the Philippines and the millions exposed to second-hand smoke are at a higher risk for severe Covid-19 symptoms.

Smoke-free environments will not only safeguard the Filipinos from Covid-19 but also from other respiratory and cardiac diseases.

“By making the Philippines smoke-free, we are actually saving countless lives in creating a generation that is free from tobacco and second-hand smoke, along with the diseases that they cause. I am a witness of that because I have been a heavy smoker for two decades. However, taking my cue from the Covid-19 pandemic, this worldwide phenomenon has greatly taught us the importance of prioritizing our health and how we, the legislators, the government, the civil society organizations, and other stakeholders, can and must do their part to keep the Filipinos’ health strong, vigorous, and ever-nourishing” said Anak Mindanao representative Amihilda Sangcopan, PLCPD Vice Chair, and co-author of House Bill 8763 or the Smoke-Free Environment Bill in the Champions’ Conference organized by the Philippine Smoke-Free Movement on July 14.

“With one last session left this Congress, the upcoming elections in sight, and the ongoing pandemic, we remind our legislators to focus on evidence-based policy making. In the time of a pandemic, Congress should be prioritizing and crafting laws that protect the health of the Filipinos and from activities that can compromise their health. The health and the future of all Filipinos are in the hands of our legislators. Now, more than ever, ensuring that our environments are free from the dangers of tobacco smoke has become more urgent,” said Dongeto.