Tobacco and the Philippines


For better or worse (health wise and economically-speaking somewhat), the Philippines has had a long affair with the tobacco plant. Today, the negative health effects of tobacco and camel cigaretts are well understood; so we hope that the affair is finally coming to an end. Beyond personal health, cigarettes pose a public health and garbage problem. Each day we lose count of how many people we see tossing their cigarettes on the streets and sidewalks: out of car windows, over their shoulder and right in front of other people. People would never indiscriminately litter in their own homes, but almost feel compelled to in public spaces. A health risk is also posed by second hand smoke.

According to the Mayo Clinic’s website (, “…second hand smoke contain harmful chemicals – and a lot of them. Tobacco smoke contains more than 4,000 chemical compounds, more than 250 of which are toxic. And more than 50 of the chemicals in cigarette smoke are known or suspected to cause cancer. Included in secondhand smoke are: Formaldehyde, Arsenic, Cadmium, Benzene, Polonium.” It is well known, and has been for decades, that secondhand smoke can cause a greater risk of heart disease, cancer and lung disease. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) secondhand smoke is a Class A carcinogen and causes cancer in humans.

Our historical relationship with tobacco began in the late 1500s; it was one of the first plants exported to our shores by the Spanish empire. The goal was to turn the Philippines into a tobacco producing nation. The tobacco plant had a special affinity for our soil and took root quickly. Among the native population smoking tobacco quickly became a status symbol; in emulation of the Spanish ‘elites’. According to Edilberto J. de Jesus: “the plant enjoyed the prestige of having been imported by the colonial ruling class — it became fashionable among the status-conscious natives ‘to drink, smoke’ according to the custom of the conquerors”. We wonder if this attitude may play into our continuing cigarette consumption?

In the 18th century, the Spanish government imposed a government monopoly on tobacco. This was proposed by Leandro de Viana in 1765 and accomplished in 1780 by Governor-General Jose Basco y Vargas (who was an economically forward thinking governor-general). The result was, instead of being a ‘financial drain’ on the crown, the colony was self-sustaining and even profit-making. S.V. Epistola would write: “The government collected all authorized imposts, taxes and fees. For the first time in a hundred years the government was solvent.” According to Dr. Benito Legarda in his book, After the Galleons there was an unexpected side-effect of the enforcement of tobacco (and other agricultural products) monopoly: “An indirect effect was the beginning of the agricultural specialization, since the tobacco-growing regions could no longer grow their own food but had to import it from elsewhere in the country.” As we just witnessed with the recent calamities, we do need to diversify our food and agricultural production around the country. Our penchant for regional agriculture specialization is a 300-year-old archaic hold-over.

Each year approximately 90,000 people die from smoking related illness: this is more than deaths from natural calamities and conflicts. Surveys in terms of tobacco use among youth in the Philippines indicate that smoking is on the rise. The government has passed the Tobacco Control Act in 2003, but more needs to be done.

What we recommend are developing targeted publicity and anti-smoking campaigns focusing on the youth. The goal should be to educate people on the dangers of smoking. In the Philippines, we have not seen such a high-profile campaign mounted. The rising number of youths smoking demonstrates that the health risks of smoking are not being effectively taught. Youth-oriented campaigns have proven effective in other countries and should be emulated here. The benefits of reducing smoking in the Philippines will be found in public health, garbage and even beautifying our cities and streets.


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