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Philippine President-Elect Under Pressure to Kick the Habit

The next president of the Philippines, Benigno Aquino III, faces the daunting task of tackling rampant corruption, poverty and a deadly rebel insurgency in the country's south. But he also faces another, more personal challenge - to quit smoking. And health officials are ratcheting up the pressure on him to quit - now.

Mr. Aquino makes no effort to hide his smoking. On the presidential campaign trail, he would routinely light up a cigarette in front of news cameras. Mr. Aquino says now that he's won the country's top office, he has no plans to quit. But health advocates say the incoming president should rethink that decision.

"As somebody who will lead the country, he will definitely be a role model for our people, especially the youth," says. Maricar Limpin, the head of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control Alliance Philippines in Manila. "For the youth to see him smoking, then that's not setting up the right tone. So he's not being a good role model if that will be the case."

Limpin says even if Mr. Aquino is not concerned about the public image of smoking, he should be worried about his health.

"We cannot afford to have a leader that will eventually get sick. We want a leader who is physically fit and healthy to really lead the country to greater heights," Limpin says.

Mr. Aquino is one of an estimated 17 million Filipinos lighting up, nearly 48 percent of all adults.

Susan Mercado, the regional advisor for the World Health Organization's Tobacco Free Initiative, warns the smoke is taking its toll on the nation's health.

"Cardiovascular disease and related conditions like strokes are the leading cause of death," she points out. "And it's estimated that 10 Filipinos die each hour from tobacco-related disease."

That includes both the people smoking, and the folks breathing the second-hand smoke nearby.

"People are exposed to second-hand smoke in public transport, in public places like restaurants, bars, malls and so on," says Mercado. "So there is a high level of exposure to second-hand smoke."

Mercado says the government needs to address smoking indoors, and get tough on tobacco companies that are luring young people to smoke with pastel packages and fruity and candy-flavored cigarettes.

Mr. Aquino has shrugged off calls from tobacco control advocates to kick the habit, saying it's one of his few remaining freedoms. He's not alone among world leaders who are resisting calls to quit. U.S. President Barack Obama also smokes but he has been extremely careful never to be seen smoking in public. And while Mr. Obama has said he's trying to scale back, there's no indication that he plans to quit.

Hard-core smokers addicted to nicotine say lighting up a cigarette calms their nerves, and that leading a country is no time to stop.

Limpin of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control Alliance Philippines, acknowledges the troubles smokers face when going through withdrawal (when they try to quit smoking).

"The cravings, the jitteriness, the irritability, increased salivation, so just like any typical addiction, we should realize that smoking is a disease, it's a form of addiction," says Limpin.

But she says with a little professional help, Mr. Aquino can do more to improve his health and set a better model for the nation.