Smoke-free environment is the new normal, say health advocates

A smoke-free environment will improve people’s health amid COVID-19 and should be part of the government’s over-all strategy to address the pandemic under the new normal.

Public health advocates made the statement while calling on legislators to declare work and public places safe from cigarette smoking and vaping.

“There has been no other time but now that Filipinos have become more health conscious, more informed on how one’s individual health impacts other people, and more aware of their right to health. The government should thus take this opportunity to mandate a healthful and toxic-free environment by declaring all work and public places 100 per cent smoke-free,” said a unity statement issued by 23 advocacy groups on June 8.

“Smoke-free policies are crucial measures that should be incorporated in the overall strategy of the government’s COVID-19 response,” it said.

The statement followed the House of Representatives’ approval on second reading of the proposed Better Normal for the Workplace, Communities and Public Spaces Act of 2020 (HB 6864) that will require physical distancing and safety measures in government and private offices, schools, commercial establishments and other public spaces.

The bill replaced HB 6623 or The New Normal for the Workplace and Public Spaces Act of 2020 that was filed by Speaker Allan Cayetano and other House leaders in late April.

Among the measures proposed under HB 6864 are the mandatory wearing of face masks, availability of hand washing and sanitizing stations in public areas, temperature checks, and observance of physical distancing.

Public health advocates are urging legislators to include the provision that “all indoor and outdoor work places and public places, regardless of whether government-managed or privately-managed, shall be smoke-free and vape-free and no designated smoking and vaping area shall be allowed” as part of the mandatory safety measures in any new normal policy.

By doing so, “the government will be able to reduce: (1) the transmission of COVID-19 virus; (2) the number of Filipinos who would suffer from serious illness due to COVID-19; and, (3) major healthcare costs of suffering from COVID-19.”

The government, through Executive Order 106 signed last February and amending EO 26, prohibits cigarette smoking and vaping in public and enclosed areas nationwide.

Public health expert Dr. Susan Mercado said COVID-19 brought “a moment where we are all very aware of our health and how our own health impacts other people.”

“Blowing off smoke, second hand smoke, indoor smoke and third hand smoke are not acceptable anymore because you are affecting the health of other people,” she said.

The World Health Organization and various health experts have warned that smoking is a risk factor for severity of any lower respiratory tract infection, and that the same would be expected in COVID-19, a respiratory disease.

The WHO found that tobacco products kill up to half of its users or more than 8 million people each year.

“More than 7 million of those deaths are the result of direct tobacco use while around 1.2 million are the result of non-smokers being exposed to second-hand smoke,” it said.

Another statement from the health agency claims smoking can impair lung function, making it “harder for the body to fight off coronaviruses and other respiratory diseases.”

Users of e-cigarettes are not exempted as the contraction of heart disease and lung disorders is higher than those who do not smoke at all, research from the United States National Institutes of Health suggests.

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