Cigarettes: The macho killers


SOME years ago, I was asked to create an ad campaign to debunk the argument that a non-smoking section in restaurants and other public places could spare non-smokers from the hazards of second-hand smoke.

I depicted a public swimming pool where someone urinated at one end of the pool, causing all the swimmers to jump out. The headline read: “Does it make sense to have a non-pissing section in a public pool?”

Indeed, if urinating in a public pool can make others “rest in piss,” second hand-smoke in a public place can literally make folks RIP.

While this may seem “punny,” the health risks posed by cigarettes and second-hand smoke are no joke. This harsh reality struck me after I read a paper written by Dr. Edilberto B. Garcia, Jr., president of the Ambulatory Pediatric Association, Inc., along with a news item about the anti-smoking campaign being waged by Vital Strategies, described as “a global health organization that seeks to accelerate progress on the world’s most pressing health problems.”

I think I’m familiar enough with the hazards of smoking. I used to smoke three packs a day. At the time that I still smoked, no health warnings or scare tactics could keep me away from my “yosi” – not even the fact that, on most mornings, I suffered from smoker’s cough and felt as if a cat had slept in my mouth

I spent my teenage years in the movie industry where smoking was a macho thing. Holding a stick between my fingers or letting it hang from my mouth made me feel like the rugged Marlboro Man in that classic Western-themed TV commercial.

Well, guess what. The Marlboro Man – in fact, four men who played that role in the commercial series – died of lung cancer caused by smoking.

Another macho man, Gabriel “Flash” Elorde, who predated Manny Pacquiao in the world boxing hall of fame, was knocked out by lung cancer. He was a chain smoker.

It is no exaggeration to say that smoking is a Macho Killer.

Mercifully I quit smoking before the addiction could inflict any lasting damage on me. I can’t say as much about some of my friends and relatives. An in-law has a severe case of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) which he attributes to years of smoking. His elder brother died a couple of years ago from emphysema, with cigarettes suspected as the culprit. A lawyer friend managed to quit smoking, but it was too late. He died of lung cancer a few months after taking his last puff.

I could rattle off the names of celebrities who succumbed to lung cancer and other respiratory ailments caused by smoking, but that won’t necessarily convince people to kick the habit. The most common excuse is that quitting is not easy or that it’s too late to stop.

There has to be a very persuasive, hard-to-resist reason to stop smoking. My motivation was provided by my children.

I had four growing kids for whom I initiated a physical fitness regimen, as an alternative to the temptation of drug use. The tactic worked. Then one day, my eldest son chided me: “Papa, you’re exercising everyday but you’re smoking. Do you know that it’s bad for your health?”

The next day, I stopped. Cold turkey. None of my children learned to smoke or do drugs and I  haven’t touched a stick for almost 40 years.

For different folks, different reasons for kicking the habit can work. According Vital Strategies, the Department of Health reported that over a million Filipinos quit smoking from 2009 to 2015 – down from 17 million to 15.9 million – apparently due to the graphic warning on cigarette packs and the higher taxes on tobacco products.

But that’s still nearly 16% of the population who are at risk, not to mention those endangered by second-hand smoke. Clearly, there is a need for more aggressive anti-smoking action. This should include an executive order, said to be awaiting the signature of President Rodrigo Duterte, that will ban smoking in public places and will add more teeth to Republic Act 9211.

RA 9211 – “An Act Regulating the Packaging, Use, Sales, Distribution and Advertisements of Tobacco Products” – is actually a “fence-sitter” law because, while it purports to “promote a healthful environment and protect the citizens from the hazards of tobacco smoke,” the law also provides that “the interests of tobacco farmers, growers, workers and stakeholders are not adversely compromised.” Stake holders include Big Tobacco.

Said Vital Strategies President and CEO Jose Luis Castro, “Public health is best served when a comprehensive set of tobacco control policies are enacted to deter youth from initiating smoking, encourage current smokers to quit, and protect the health of non-smokers who make up the majority of the population.”

Castro added: “Graphic health warnings and the single, unified rate of tax on cigarettes have been positive steps forward, as have regional smoking bans, but a national smoke-free policy and – critically – higher tobacco taxes would help to deliver real reductions in smoking prevalence.”

If I might suggest: Also needed is a sustained and aggressive anti-smoking information campaign on both traditional media and social media, like the one successfully mounted in the US. As a result, in America, smokers are regarded as virtual pariahs.

I also think special attention should be given to second-hand smoke because it poses a more insidious hazard due to the false impression that being a non-smoker necessarily spares one from the threat. In this regard, I think excerpts from the paper of Dr. Garcia can be very enlightening:

“Every week in my clinic I see people harmed by secondhand smoke especially among infants, children and members of their household. The science is clear – second-hand smoke can cause a range of harms including respiratory illness, impaired lung function, middle ear disease in children and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, while in adults it can cause lung cancer, stroke, and asthma attacks and delivery of low birth weight infants among pregnant women.

“We call it the invisible killer, because the harm isn’t just in the smoke you can see and smell – nearly 85% of tobacco smoke is invisible and odorless, but causes just as much harm.

“Even brief exposure causes harm. Just 30 minutes of second-hand smoke increases risk of a heart attack. The national Global Adult Tobacco Survey showed that millions suffer exposure every month: 55% of all Filipinos report breathing second-hand smoke recently on public transport and 33% in restaurants, and 77% who work in a place with no formal anti-smoking policy are routinely breathing in this hazardous cloud of dozens of toxic chemicals.”

Did I say that the anti-smoking campaign has been successful in the US? Read this Google post and weep. Big Tobacco has simply shifted its focus to the Third World:

“U.S. tobacco companies have a long history of deceit, deception and duplicity in their relentless pursuit of profit. These companies have hooked generations of American smokers using the tools of manipulative advertising, disinformation campaigns refuting the health consequences of smoking, and political lobbying. In the process, they have grown into enormous multinational conglomerates. In recent years, as smoking has declined in the United States, they have begun to look elsewhere for growth.

“While cigarette sales fell by 4.5 percent in North America between 1990 and 1995, they increased by 5.6 percent in Eastern Europe and 8 percent in the Asia-Pacific region. By the turn of the century, per capita consumption in developing countries will be greater than that of developed countries, says the World Health Organization (WHO)…Multinational cigarette companies are flooding developing countries with ads that say smoking is exciting, glamorous and Western. The situation is only going to get worse as more women and children start smoking.”

I suggest that Vital Strategies should borrow the anti-smoking TV commercial in the US featuring a former Marlboro Man, Wayne McLaren, who died of lung cancer at age 51. After quitting his modeling assignment with Marlboro, he appeared in the anti-smoking campaign until his death.

Said McLaren, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times: “I’ve spent the last month of my life in an incubator and I’m telling you, it’s just not worth it.”

Vital Industries could name the TV commercial, The Macho Killers. (gregmacabenta@hotmail.com)

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