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POV Philippines by Jon Joaquin

Lighting up in Davao

by Jon Joaquin

Visitors to Davao City are often amused by the sight of small clusters of people huddled in the middle of parking lots at all times of the day – even at noontime under the direct heat of the sun. They’re way out there to indulge their smoking habit, and these smoking areas are the only places they can do it. The spaces are tiny, able to fit a maximum of maybe 10 people at a time, and they’re purposely located in the parking lots and other such places to keep the smoke away from non-smokers.

Smoking in public places has been officially banned in Davao City since 2002 through a city ordinance, but then-Mayor Rodrigo Duterte had actually banned it a few years earlier through an administrative order. During the presidential campaign in 2016, Duterte would tell the story – most probably a joke – of how he decided on the ban. He had been a smoker much of his life, he would say, but at one point his doctor told him to stop the habit. “If I can’t smoke, then no one else can,” he said, and proceeded to issue the order banning smoking in all public places in the city.

I was covering Duterte as a journalist when he first banned smoking, and his actual reason was pretty straightforward and science-based: second-hand smoke kills. He couldn’t care less about the smokers themselves, he would say, because it was their choice to inhale all those toxins. What he cared about were the people who were also forced to breathe in their smoke. He was so adamant about the ban that not even the rich owners of business establishments could sway him.

At first he allowed smoking rooms to be set up in buildings, but when the 2002 ordinance was being crafted he put his foot down and said all smoking was to be done outside, especially in restaurants. The reason behind it shows where his heart is and why he is so loved by the people of the city: Duterte said smoking rooms would also force food servers and other staff members to inhale the smoke. His concern was for the people and he wasn’t afraid of losing the support of the business owners who stood to lose money over the ban.

Now one would think that the smoking ban would result in a more or less smoker-free city, but I was surprised to find that the opposite is actually true. Seventeen years after the ordinance, Davao City actually leads the country in the number of smokers. HMO company PhilCare this week released the results of its second Wellness Index that showed Davaoeños smoke an average of 10 sticks a day compared to the nationwide average of only about four.

To be fair, 10 sticks per day is lower than the 12-stick average in the first PhilCare study done in 2014. But it is still puzzling why Davaoeños smoke more than other Filipinos. One possible reason is that people in this city have more money to spend on vices. With the Tax Reform Acceleration and Inclusion Act (TRAIN) placing higher taxes on cigarettes, the cost of puffing up has increased over the past year. Filipino smokers are cutting back on the habit – except Davaoeños.

I’m also curious as to where Davaoeño smokers light up. They can’t do it in most places, and I see only a few people in the designated smoking areas at any given time. I know that my smoker friends mostly do it at home, so that would mean smokers are smoking in random places where they probably shouldn’t. And in fact, the city’s Vices Regulation Unit (VRU) recorded a more than 50 per cent increase in the apprehension of smoking violators during the first quarter of 2019 compared with the same period last year. That number is staggering in Davao City terms, given that we don’t actually see the smokers. According to the VRU, there were more than 3,200 apprehensions in the first quarter of the year, compared with only 2,100 during the same period last year.

And no, most of those caught smoking are not visitors. The VRU said 80 per cent are locals, with the rest tourists or migrants who may not have been familiar with the smoking ban. Despite the figures, smoking really has gone down in the city, and I guess it’s a comfort to know that those in other places have been following our example more faithfully than we are.

The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the original author, and do not necessarily represent those of the Pilipino Express publishers.

Jon Joaquin is the Editor-In- Chief of the Davao City-based Mindanao Daily Mirror. E-mail Jon at

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