Smoke-free movement warns against smoking areas in workplaces

The Philippine Smoke-Free Movement raised an alarm against the recent rejection of a smoking ban in workplaces as recommended by the Inter-agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) in its bid to control the spread of COVID-19 in the country. 

Over the weekend, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) released a Joint Memorandum allowing smoking booths in workplaces. According to Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello, a smoking ban “will adversely affect the tobacco industry.”

Tobacco control advocates disagree. 

“DTI and DOLE must heed the caution of Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr., Chief Implementer of the National Task Force against COVID-19, about the danger of having smoking areas in workplaces because wearing of face masks and physical distancing cannot be maintained in smoking areas said Mars Mendoza from Social Watch Philippines, the convenor of the Philippine Smoke-Free Movement, a coalition of more than 70 civil society organizations.

“Health protocols will be compromised. Imagine a smoker removing his face mask the entire time he is inside the booth and repeatedly touching his face, cigarettes, and other surfaces. His respiratory droplets in the smoke aerosol will also fill the entire booth and adhere to the surfaces of the booth and on door handles. Also, smokers will have to line up if only one person can use the booth at a time. It’s even worse if the smoking area is shared by different companies,” Mendoza added.

The World Health Organization early this year warned that smokers may be more vulnerable to contracting COVID-19, as the act of smoking involves contact of fingers with the lips, which increases the possibility of transmission of viruses from hand to mouth, and that smoking increases the risk of severe disease and death from COVID-19. 

On August 14, Spain banned smoking in public places amid a surge in new coronavirus cases. This was in light of research by the Spanish health ministry that showed a heightened risk of smokers transferring the virus to other people in droplets exhaled with smoke.

“EO 26 is clear. Creation of smoking areas is not mandatory. Instead, persons-in-charge may enforce stringent measures to promote smoke-free environments,” clarified Dr. Jaime Galvez-Tan, former DOH Secretary and Director of HealthJustice Philippines. “As we are seeing another rise in the number of infections, DTI and DOLE must align their policies to the rest of the government efforts to enforce all health measures that can mitigate the toll of the pandemic to Filipino lives.”

“Smoke-free workplaces promote the health and safety of all workers. This pandemic is an opportunity for DOLE to protect and promote the health of workers by encouraging smokers to quit. DOLE should protect all workers, and not just the tobacco industry,” said Dr. Ulysses Dorotheo, Executive Director, Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance. 

“Keep in mind that 12 Filipinos die every hour due to tobacco-related diseases; each death is preventable, and each life is priceless. In addition, the healthcare and socio-economic costs of smoking amount to at least PhP210 billion annually,” added Dr. Dorotheo.

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