MANILA // The World Health Organisation has expressed concern that the Philippines is encouraging smoking by hosting one of the world's largest tobacco trade shows.
The two-day fair called ProTobEx ASIA opened yesterday in the capital's Pasay City for the second consecutive year. Organisers said they chose the Philippines over other locations in Asia because of its vibrant tobacco industry and the "phenomenal" support of the Pasay City government.
Organisers said that Pasay city authorities waived a ban on indoor smoking at the venue, the World Trade Centre, but Pasay's mayor, Antonino Calixto, said that the application was denied.
"Attendees should refrain from puffing cigarettes inside the venue," he said. "If they do so, they would violate existing laws against smoking."
He said the city would send inspectors to check on compliance.
The media was barred from the conference yesterday and organisers could not be reached for comment. Antismoking protesters held a rally outside the venue calling for the fair to be closed.
Eigil Sorensen, a senior WHO adviser, said that the Philippine government is a signatory to the international Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which bans tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship.
"The exhibition should not be used to promote tobacco," he said. "We are against any activity that promotes tobacco use, and our advice to the government is to withdraw any endorsements."
The UN agencies in the Philippines, including WHO, wrote to President Benigno Aquino on March 11 to cite the government's commitment to regulate tobacco in the country and protect Filipinos from its harmful effects.
Last year, the former Philippine finance and health secretaries criticised a similar event, but Mr Aquino had sent a welcome note, saying the trade show benefited the economy.
Close to 14 million adult Filipinos smoke every day and an estimated 10 die each hour from tobacco-related diseases, WHO says.
The Philippines has one of Asia's highest smoking rates, and had some of the lowest prices for tobacco products before a "sin tax" law took effect this year. It is gradually increasing tax on cigarettes to 30 pesos (Dh2.7) or more per pack by 2017, roughly doubling the current price.
Mr Sorensen said that aggressive cigarette advertisements and promotions, such as the Manila event, have been shown to entice young people to start smoking early and keep them hooked.
"Despite the significant decrease in the prevalence of smoking among youths 13 to 15 years old, the tobacco epidemic in the country remains a serious one," he said.