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March 14, 2017

After years of advocacy, a smoke-free Philippines is now within reach

By Christina Curell, Vital Strategies Communications Associate

My team is in rapid response mode.

With mere hours to execute a flurry of media activities imploring The President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, to sign an Executive Order (EO) on a national 100% smoke-free policy, we are all hands, skills and relationships on deck.

My boss just left for the bus-ferry-taxi-plane trip back across the world, furiously drafting an op-ed while on the phone with our PR guru in London.  Teammates at headquarters are online helping to edit and get funds in order. Social media partners strategize content and messaging for several possible EO outcomes that would fit our current anti-tobacco industry campaign.

Oddly enough, I’m on a beach.

I’m sitting in the beachfront restaurant of the hotel where I’ve come to work on the long game: co-facilitating a Strategic Communications training.  We’ve introduced our new planning model, “Breakthrough,” to trainees from local, provincial and regional health agencies this week, and it has been received with great enthusiasm.  With this group, we’re tying in social media as a key channel to reach youth, fitting in a trend among our Southeast Asian country partners lately.

Meanwhile, the President announced that he has a final draft of the much-awaited EO on his desk.  He has followed by announcing, however, that he calls on the medical community to give their input on the health benefits of this legislation.  The medical evidence, of course, is clear: 100% smoke-free protects the health of non-smokers.  It seems he is afraid of public pushback.

The Executive Order could be exceptional in its smoke-free coverage.  Unfortunately, it could also be influenced by tobacco corporations and create designated smoking areas indoors – even in cities where they aren’t currently allowed.

Years of advocacy towards a 100% smoke-free policy in the Philippines have come down to this moment – and coincidentally enough, I’m here for it.

During the training, my coworkers and I got to sit down with Alex Tacadao, a man that began smoking when he was 13 and has lost several fingers and toes to Buerger’s Disease.  Alex recently agreed to share his story publicly as part of our anti-tobacco industry campaign.  His help will have been crucial to bringing more attention to the need for 100% smoke-free public areas.

I swat a lingering trail of cigarette smoke from the tourist at the breakfast table next to mine while sourcing data on the harms of secondhand smoke exposure. The (illegal) Marlboro-branded napkin holder on my table asks in bold uppercase print: “WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME YOU DID SOMETHING FOR THE FIRST TIME” – a slogan in their youth-targeted “Don’t be a Maybe” campaign.

One of my in-country colleagues across the table is busy laying out print ads for newspapers.  The other hops between calls with our advocate allies in Manila, securing a medical expert and seeing who else will be willing to put forward resources.

We tie up loose ends and pass on what we can in order to switch gears and begin our last day of training.   This trip is a snapshot of the dynamic work it takes to effectively mount a communications effort with the tobacco industry as an adversary.  It is the long game of building capacity and relationships as much as it’s the immediate manpower and resources to have impact in these scarce critical moments.

For now there’s no telling what will happen with the EO, but the long game continues in stride.

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