Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has signed an executive order banning smoking in all public places across the country, and called on citizens to join a “Smoke Free Task Force to help carry out the provisions of this order”.
Duterte promised to introduce a nationwide public smoking ban during his presidential campaign, having introduced a similar ban in 2002 in Davao City when he was its mayor, one of a series of measures he introduced to instil greater societal discipline.
Yet while the implementation of a nationwide smoking ban is unsurprising, the way in which it was carried out was decidedly non-presidential, according to Aries Arugay, an assistant politics professor at the University of the Philippines Diliman.
“It is really unusual for an executive order to cover such an issue, but this is something President Duterte feels strongly about,” he said. “It demonstrates President Duterte’s highly personalized approach to policymaking – the issues he most wants to address might not be the most pressing ones for the country.”
After Indonesia, the Philippines is the largest consumer of tobacco in Southeast Asia, according to the Philippines Health Department.
In 2014, the country passed a law requiring tobacco companies to print graphic health warnings on all cigarette packaging. But the law failed to make an impact, with the archipelago accounting for almost one in every 13 cigarettes sold globally by Philip Morris the following year.
In the eyes of Ramon Beleno III, chair of the political science and history department at Ateneo de Davao University, that policy was doomed to failure as Filipinos “rather buy cigarettes per stick than per pack”. Beleno, however, was optimistic that Duterte’s new policy would be far more successful in snubbing out the addiction.
“I think that the nationwide public smoking ban will be more effective,” he said. “It is effective here in Davao. People would rather stop smoking than go through a lot of stress just to look for the proper smoking area.”
Beleno added that Duterte was a “rare breed of politician” that followed through on his promises “whatever the cost”.
“The punitive measures…teach the people to be more disciplined and responsible in their action,” he said. “For the longest time, Filipinos lacked discipline because they do not feel the strong presence of the government.”
For many, Duterte’s decision to publicly encourage citizens to apprehend smokers raises a red flag for human rights, with many fearing the order might spark a wave of violent vigilantism, in line with that witnessed in relation to the ongoing war on drugs.
But Beleno said that was unlikely.
“The task force, I believe, is only empowered to issue tickets to violators. Violence would not be in the picture,” he said.
Arugay, however, said it remained to be seen whether it would “lead to intense violence and vigilantism”. He was also circumspect about the potential impact of the ban overall.
“The effectiveness will depend on implementation and the institutional infrastructure that will enforce the ban,” he said. “Given the current state of Philippine institutions, it might be difficult to implement it throughout the whole country.