Noynoy Aquino: In defense of smoking
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Noynoy Aquino: In defense of smoking

The Philippines has always had presidents who smoke. Fidel Ramos and Joseph Estrada are two of them. Senator Benigno Aquino III, who is on his way to become the country’s next president, is a smoker as well. I cannot recall, however, any instance during their time when Ramos and Estrada were criticized for their habit. On the other hand, Aquino, who is not even president yet, is now the subject of intense criticism because of his smoking. What gives?
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/>I think it may have something to do with Ramos’s and Estrada’s attitude toward smoking and, more importantly, an acknowledgment of the fact that smoking is never good and that, as leaders, what they do will always have an impact on the public.
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/>Ramos is often seen chomping on a cigar. Joseph Estrada has been seen with a cigarette in his hand. Ramos’s cigar, however, is never lit and he doesn’t usually flaunt it. Estrada would never have his pictures taken with a cigarette in hand. I remember interviewing him months ago and as the photographer was clicking away, Estrada stopped him and told him to do it later because he was holding a cigarette.
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/>By contrast, Aquino couldn’t care less, it would seem. He whips out a stick whenever and wherever it suits him. In a country where 17 million of its 90 million population smoke, this should be a non-issue. “Give him a break” is a common retort by his friends and supporters.
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/>If only it were that simple.
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/>Why Aquino’s smoking has become such a hot-button issue in the Philippines is largely because of his statements that not only justified his smoking and refusal to kick the habit, but even insulted those who have called on him to quit.
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/>He told reporters last month that he needed cigarettes so he can handle the pressures of his job. Smoking, he said, is one of the remaining freedoms he enjoys. How dare Filipinos deprive him of it? he seems to be saying.
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/>Then on Monday, Aquino stepped up his counter-attack against tobacco-control advocates. “I have made a lot of sacrifices. Maybe those who are asking me to sacrifice have not sacrificed anything. Maybe they want to join me,” he told reporters who had asked him again about the issue, especially after he replied “no” to a question on whether he would observe World No-Tobacco Day last Monday by not lighting a stick that day. The mocking tone of his statement is unmistakable.
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/>And then he added, with a logic that is mindboggling: “If I can be pushed around on a petty subject, I can be pushed around on bigger ones. And if I mind (those who want me to quit), I won’t be decisive and I will lose face with my supporters.”
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/>His supporters and friends have also joined in this counter-attack, criticizing those who want Aquino to quit by saying there are more important issues to talk about other than one man’s smoking habit.
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/>But he is not just one man – he is the future president of the Philippines, a man admired by Filipinos, particularly the youth who volunteered by the thousands during his campaign for the presidency. Each time he sticks that cigarette in his mouth, he’s sending the message that it is okay to smoke – that it is okay to kill yourself and those around you.
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/>Every hour, according to the World Health Organization, 10 Filipinos die from illnesses that are directly traced to smoking. Smoking is the single most preventable factor, the WHO said, that contributes to the worsening of cardiovascular diseases, the top killer of Filipinos.
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/>What’s more, the number of young Filipino smokers is growing. According to WHO data cited by Newsbreak magazine, 15.9 percent of Filipinos aged 13 to 15 were smoking in 2008. The next year, this number jumped to 22.7 percent.
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/>In Southeast Asia, excluding Timor Leste, the Philippines ranks the highest in nearly all smoking indicators in the Global Youth Tobacco Survey done by the World Health Organization and the US-based Centers for Disease Control, as shown below:
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/>THAILAND (2009)
/>25.8% of students had ever smoked cigarettes (Boy = 40.3%, Girl = 12.1%)
/>17.9% currently use any tobacco product (Boy = 26.9%, Girl = 9.2%)
/>11.7% currently smoke cigarettes (Boy = 20.1%, Girl = 3.8%)
/>10.8% currently use other tobacco products (Boy = 15.3%, Girl = 6.5%)
/>8.6% of never smokers are likely to initiate smoking next year
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/>INDONESIA (2009)
/>30.4% of students had ever smoked cigarettes (Boy = 57.8%, Girl = 6.4%)
/>22.5% currently use any tobacco product (Boy = 41.0%, Girl = 6.2%)
/>20.3% currently smoke cigarettes (Boy = 41.0%, Girl = 3.5%)
/>6.5% currently use other tobacco products (Boy = 10.3%, Girl = 3.1%)
/>11.5% of never smokers are likely to initiate smoking next year
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/>PHILIPPINES (2007)
/>46.2% of students had ever smoked cigarettes (Boy =58.2%, Girl = 34.7%)
/>27.3% currently use any tobacco product (Boy = 34.3%, Girl = 19.6%)
/>21.7% currently smoke cigarettes (Boy = 29.3%, Girl = 13.8%)
/>9.7% currently use other tobacco products (Boy = 10.6%, Girl = 8.3%)
/>13.6% of never smokers are likely to initiate smoking next year
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/>How is smoking a non-issue that Aquino and his supporters should ignore is beyond me. If Aquino cannot see smoking as a worrisome public-health issue that not only kills 240 Filipinos every day but also sapped more than 445 billion pesos in 2008 due to health and economic costs (as opposed to the 27 billion in tobacco taxes collected that same year), then woe to us all.
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/>To be sure, it’s probably not fair to throw all this at him at this point. But I wish he’d be more circumspect in his statements defending his habit and I wish he realizes that he’s no longer just the same old Noynoy, that he soon will become the president that every Filipino will look up to not just for leadership but, more importantly, guidance.