It’s that time of the year again, when the idiots come out of the woodwork not only to fire their guns into the air, but also to set off firecrackers at the risk of their and other people’s lives and limbs. By tomorrow, the hospitals will be full of the victims of both, despite the usual appeals to good sense, social responsibility, plain decency and their own undeserved welfare.

About people, mostly policemen, firing their guns we’ve seen some progress over the years, though as early as the official onset of the Christmas season there were already two victims of stray bullets.

But the real good news this year is that firecrackers sales are down, though not necessarily because Filipinos have suddenly acquired the wisdom that has been eluding them for years. It’s more probably because some of them have finally arrived at the conclusion that in these dire economic times their money’s best spent on necessities.

At least three Philippine cities—Baguio, Davao and Zamboanga—have helped keep firecrackers off people’s hands by banning the sale, distribution and use of firecrackers. In Metro Manila, the mayors of Caloocan, Malabon, Navotas and Valenzuela have also limited the places where firecrackers may be exploded in their jurisdictions by designating zones for them, which should discourage those who prefer to set off mega-firecrackers in front of their houses.

The firecracker manufacturers aren’t happy, and have been loudly complaining about what they describe as official discrimination against their product.

The Philippine Pyrotechnic Manufacturers and Dealers Association Inc. (PPMDAI) claims that both the designation of firecracker zones and the ban on their products are illegal, because RA 7183, which legalized the manufacture, sale and use of firecrackers and fireworks, should be superior to local ordinances.

“If the government that legalized our industry cannot protect us as taxpayers and businessmen,” said PPMDAI’s Celso Cruz, “they better abolish (sic) RA 7183.”

Moves are in fact afoot to repeal RA 7183, and for perfectly good reasons. The first of this should be clear enough, but for some reason isn’t: the firecracker makers make a product without any socially redeeming value.

Free expression could justify, and has been known to justify, even pornography. But nothing as noble as the right to express yourself validates a product that mostly makes noise, and disturbs entire neighborhoods. And you don’t hear the noise only on New Year’s Eve either. Firecrackers begin to make their presence felt as early as October, when the neighborhood idiots set one or several firecrackers off in the early hours of the morning so people won’t get any sleep.

But a firecracker doesn’t only make noise, which in these parts is usually loud enough to wake the dead. It also maims and kills. It turns the emergency rooms of hospitals into virtual military field hospitals, and doctors into battlefield surgeons. Fire departments also have their hands full battling the fires this same product starts, especially in the ghettoes of the poor.

But this product doesn’t need a fire to add to the already critical pollution in Philippine cities, especially Metro Manila. The smoke from it is enough to blanket those cities in a horrendous, health-threatening black pall, which has been known to kill asthmatics and to send babies and the elderly to hospital. And of course there’s the debris it leaves, littering the streets everywhere, forcing even those who don’t use it to clean up after those who do.

Far from having any socially redeeming value, it in fact detracts from the social virtues, encouraging indifference to the rights of others to silence, sleep and health, and ruining the holidays for them.

But arguably the worst thing about firecrackers is that every year they cause hundreds of Filipinos to lose fingers, eyes and other vulnerable body parts, and even their lives.

Most of these Filipinos are children. But trust adults to be among the victims of their own folly as well, thanks to the availability of a product that, for all the demand for it, actually serves no purpose.

It doesn’t put roofs over people’s heads, food on their tables or clothes on their backs. On the contrary. The heads of even the poorest families have been known to spend hundreds of pesos on it rather than on their children’s needs. In many instances that decision turns out to be the path to a painful trip to the hospital. In some cases a firecracker in the hands of a child or even an adult turns into a weapon hurled at others, which in turn leads to fights, stabbings and shootings.

In 1993 Congress passed a law that would supposedly regulate the manufacture and sale of a product many other countries have banned as inherently dangerous, environmentally polluting and useless.

Openly sold though illegal, firecrackers had become as powerful as hand grenades and bombs. Regulation, it was thought, would help put a stop to the deaths and injuries their illicit, though tolerated manufacture caused. Corrupt police and local officials, it was widely known, protected the manufacturers. Republic Act 7183 would also put a stop to the corruption, as well as assure the government of additional revenues via the taxes registered manufacturers would have to pay.

In 2001, or eight years after the passage of RA 7183, the injuries continued. The hospitals still braced for the expected deluge of the injured, and Philippine cities still looked like war zones by the stroke of 12 midnight of January 1.

Because of the decline in firecracker sales this year, maybe things won’t be as bad. But the hospitals have nevertheless placed their staffs on emergency footing, and at least two clandestine firecracker manufacturers have blown up their makeshift plants and taken their employees and parts of their Bulacan neighborhoods with them.

Regulation has in fact only partly worked. Clandestine manufacturers persist in manufacturing the firecrackers whose power sends hundreds into the hospitals. Though injured, hundreds of others who don’t go to hospitals also end up dead from tetanus and other infections.

Although they now call themselves businessmen and taxpayers, and claim the right to government protection, the makers of firecrackers cannot change one thing, and it is that they make a dangerous, health-threatening and totally worthless product.

Given that fact, the initiatives of local governments to either ban the sale, distribution and use of firecrackers within their jurisdictions, or to designate specific zones where firecrackers may be exploded appear to be solutions to a problem that has persisted even after legalization.

One can only wish that all Philippine cities and municipalities would follow suit. That should get at least some of the idiots off the streets and out of the hospitals—and help put the makers of firecrackers, whether clandestine or legal, out of business.

(Today/, December 31, 2002)

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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