AS PURPLE streamers fluttered about the metro for international women’s day last week, gender groups alerted the public to the single most pernicious health trend afflicting Filipino women today— the past years’ forbidding rise in female cigarette smoking in the Philippines.

“Filipinas were already the 16th heaviest women smokers in the world in 2009,” said Mercy Fabros, campaign coordinator for WomanHealth Philippines, “If we don’t act now, hundreds of thousands of these Filipinas will soon die prematurely, or be crippled by smoking-related diseases.”

According to the latest Global Adult Tobacco Survey, which was conducted in 2009, 9.0% or 2.8 million Filipino women were current tobacco users. 39.6% of the population, moreover, was reportedly exposed to second-hand smoke in their homes on a daily basis.

Even more sinister has been the appalling growth in cigarette smoking among young Filipinas. Between only 2003 and 2007, the ranks of Filipina smokers aged 13-15 swelled by 50.8%.

Most signs suggest that this situation has regressed even further. Studies have found, for instance, that the real price of cigarettes has become more affordable by 9% to 18% over the last decade.

“These could be the makings of a national health disaster,” stressed Princess Nemenzo, coordinator of WomanHealth, “These young women aren’t only our future workforce— they’re also our future mothers. What kinds of health problems will they be inflicting on their children and future families?”

In numerous medical analyses, tobacco use among young and pregnant women has been clearly linked to stillbirths, infant death, and various health and behavioural defects among young children

But less known is that smoking has also been exposed to spawn even more dire health risks among women in general. Apart from triggering gender ailments such as breast cancer and osteoporosis, the scientific literature confirms that women are more vulnerable than men to smoking-related diseases.

“People should realize that women are more adversely affected by smoking than men,” clarified Fabros, “Women are far more likely to develop lung cancer and cardiovascular disease from tobacco because of genetic and hormonal factors.”

“If the rate of smoking among Filipinas were to catch up with men’s, this would spur a public health emergency in the Philippines. This isn’t just about the women who would be immediately affected, but also their children and their families. All these people would be affected,” she contended.

Already, the Philippines’ “silent” tobacco epidemic costs the nation some P400 billion in total losses annually. The figure fails to convey, however, the social upheavals instigated by smoking-related diseases at the household level. It also fails to capture how Filipino women are saddled with the “double burden” of recouping any foregone incomes while remedying the health of their families.

“Filipinas and their families are now being driven to the breaking point by this emerging health crisis,” pressed Nemenzo, “Our lawmakers must immediately pass urgent tobacco control policies like the Aquino administration’s sin tax reforms to keep this situation from escalating.”