Sunday Essay: Smoking guns and spoken-word policy

Isolde D. Amante

LAST Friday in Cebu City, the police confiscated nine e-cigarettes and other vape devices every hour, on average, from persons who were using these devices in public. A police official told SunStar Cebu that the devices—230 total for that day alone—would be destroyed.

There’s no basis for what the police did and are about to do, no matter how good their intentions may be. All those seized devices are smoking guns for a crime that doesn’t yet exist.

Yes, the Tobacco Regulation Act of 2003 bans smoking in public places, but allows it in designated smoking areas. It doesn’t even mention e-cigarettes, vape pens and vaporizers, which didn’t enter the mainstream market until about five years after Republic Act 9211 became a law.

Mindanao is probably the only part of the country where President Rodrigo Duterte’s spoken ban on the importation and public use of e-cigarettes can be enforced both quickly and legitimately, since it remains under Martial Law.

Even then, he would still need to put the order in writing.

“Never mind the law,” he reportedly said.

The unfortunate thing is he’s probably right about tightening the regulations on vaping and e-cigarettes. Maybe he should take a cue from how his leadership models in China and the United States are going about it.

In the US last week, President Donald Trump listened to both sides of the vaping regulation debate. There, vaping devices and e-cigarettes are being pitched as harm reduction devices for adults who want to quit smoking but need help as they transition. But Trump is getting public support, particularly from pediatricians, parents’ groups and cancer-awareness advocates, for his proposal to ban flavored e-cigarettes.

He first brought up his ban in September. That same month, China stopped the American company Juul just days after it began selling its vape pens on two of the largest Chinese e-commerce sites. The San Francisco-based company is one of those unicorn startups; two years after its launch, according to Crunchbase, it has raised some US$14.4 billion in funding.

Public health policies are some of the toughest ones to enforce because no matter how good the intentions are behind them, they depend ultimately on individual choice. And there’s not likely to be any shortage soon of people who will choose poorly and companies who will abet those poor choices.

Our Tobacco Regulation Act, for example, admits that while the State needs to protect public health by banning smoking in public, it also needs to balance competing interests and protect the welfare of tobacco farmers. (And the large tobacco companies that buy their crops.)

If Malacañang is serious about regulating vaping more strictly, it should approach the challenge more methodically and go after not just consumers but the companies that manufacture and distribute these devices.

Asking law enforcers to act without even bothering to do the necessary policy and legislative work is a lazy maneuver that distracts us from the real challenge at hand. Issuing veiled threats to judges who might have to hear petitions against the order is downright sinister. And getting “pissed” at the national lawyers’ association for asking questions is just counter-productive.

The “why” is clear: there’s no robust evidence that e-cigarettes and vaping devices have helped smokers quit eventually and minors definitely should have no access to them. But the “how” needs a lot of work.

Also, by acting on the basis of a spoken order, aren’t law enforcers setting a dangerous precedent? Today, it’s vaping devices that get confiscated on a whim. What’s next? The motorcycles of those who insist on riding without helmets? The broadcasting licenses of pesky radio and TV station operators?

Principles we don’t assert, like the rule of law and the need to hold public officials accountable, are principles that erode sooner than we realize. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.