By Pia Rodrigo

The Senate and the House of Representatives recently ratified the bicameral conference committee report on the Vape Bill. This was met by the strong opposition of 59 medical societies, civil society, and even the Department of Health (DoH).

The ratification by Congress of the “Vaporized Nicotine Products Regulation” is a prime example of how public health has been constantly undermined by corporate interests during the COVID-19 pandemic. It shows where our legislators’ priorities truly lie.

In December 2021, the bill was passed in the Senate, with 19 senators voting in its favor and only Senators Pia Cayetano and Kiko Pangilinan voting against it. I was shocked that some lawmakers who claim to be public health advocates and championed tobacco control measures in the past seem to have been swayed by the tobacco industry into supporting the deregulatory bill.

There are several reasons why the vape bill is a threat to public health and should be vetoed.

First, it lowers the age limit of access to e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products from 21 to 18 years old.

Senate President pro tempore Ralph Recto, the bill’s sponsor in the Senate and a staunch e-cigarette user, justified this by saying that the bill simply made the age limit equal to the age limit for traditional cigarettes, in the name of fairness. This might be leveling the playing field for industry, but it definitely is not fair towards our youth whose health is at stake.

By lowering the age limit, the industry is broadening its market and taking advantage of the fact that in the Philippines, one out of seven students aged 13 to 15 are already using e-cigarettes, according to the Global Youth Tobacco Survey.

Why would we want to encourage young people to get hooked on an addictive substance like nicotine? In the United States, an outbreak of e-cigarette-related lung injuries has already caused serious lung damage, hospitalization, and death. Our youth do not deserve to be put at risk for this.

Vapers’ groups and the tobacco industry have been arguing that the vape bill will save lives by providing cigarette smokers who want to quit with a healthy alternative. But these products are already available to their supposed target market. If vape products are designed to help adult smokers shift to a less harmful alternative, why is there a need to aggressively market them to the non-smoking youth by lowering the age limit and adding more flavors?

The bill also transfers regulatory authority of vape products from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). Given the fact that e-cigarette vapor is inhaled and enters our bloodstream and lungs, it is only right that FDA retain this responsibility.

It is especially dangerous to loosen regulation on vaping during the pandemic; SARS-CoV-2 is, after all, a virus that affects the lungs. Studies have also shown that people who smoke and/or vape are more likely to develop more COVID-19 symptoms once infected with the virus.

The tobacco epidemic has already inflicted enough damage to society, killing more than eight million people each year. As companies shift from producing traditional cigarettes to “less harmful” e-cigarettes, we cannot be complacent. While evidence on the long-term effects of e-cigarettes is not yet available, the current data on the harms of vaping is enough cause for grave concern. E-cigarette regulation needs to be strengthened, not diluted.

Lastly, it is shameful that legislators continue to undermine science and evidence during a health crisis. In the middle of last year, some politicians pushed for the distribution of ivermectin to prevent and treat COVID-19, flouting the FDA’s regulatory process. They promoted the anti-parasitic drug despite the lack of strong evidence to support its effectiveness against COVID. Just like legislators’ support of the vape bill, these lawmakers claimed to be “saving lives” while disregarding the strong opposition of the great majority of our medical frontliners.

Within the next month, the vape bill will lapse into law, unless signed or vetoed by President Duterte. The President, a former smoker himself, has previously passed laws tightening regulation on e-cigarettes and vapes. The President signing the bill into law would reverse these measures and mar his legacy on his last year in office; the bill should be junked.

Pia Rodrigo is the strategic communications officer of Action for Economic Reforms (AER). AER is supporting the medical associations and civil society organizations in opposing the vape bill.