MANILA– The New Vois Association of the Philippines congratulated the solons who valiantly fought a strong tobacco lobby in passing the bill on graphic health warnings but raised the possibility that the measure’s intent would be bungled with Big Tobacco’s continued interference in government’s function.
“We want to express our heartfelt appreciation to Senators Pia Cayetano and Franklin Drilon and Representatives Barry Gutierrez and Leah Paquiz for fiercely fighting for public health despite a very strong opposition coming mainly from the Northern bloc in Congress. You have proven to us that no enemy is too big when there are honorable men and women who are willing to make a stand for what is right for the sake of the Filipino people,” said Emer Rojas, NVAP’s president.
NVAP, a group of cancer survivors and former smokers, have been relentlessly campaigning for picture-based health warnings to address the country’s tobacco epidemic. More than 17 million Filipinos smoke while 240 die from tobacco-related diseases everyday.
Rojas said while the passage of the GHW bill is a huge step towards protecting children from taking up smoking and at the same time encouraging smokers to quit, the tobacco industry was still able to tweak and influence some of its provisions.
Firstly, the bicameral version minimized Sen. Cayetano’s proposal that GHW cover 60 percent of cigarette packs and instead approved a 50 percent requirement. In Congress, where Big Tobacco’s lobbying is more evident, the size of the picture-based warnings was reduced to 40 percent.
Aside from the size requirement of the images, allies of the industry in the legislature were also able to haggle that the GHW would be placed at the bottom of the front panel instead of printing it at the top of cigarette packs.
“Putting the images at the bottom of cigarette packs reduces its visibility and consequently its effectiveness. We want them seen to warn people that smoking is harmful. We would be the world’s laughing stock because almost all new legislations around the world that implemented graphic health warnings have the images on top of the packs,” said Rojas.
“It’s bad enough that it took us seven years and three Congresses to come up with this law while other parties to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) have had these health warnings years ago and some are even on the verge of implementing plain packaging despite of not being a signatory to the convention.The consolidated version of the bicam also watered down the fines and penalties for violators from P20 million as proposed by Sen. Cayetano to just P2 million.
The Inter-Agency Committee on Tobacco (IAC-T) where the Philippine Tobacco Institute sits as a member was also involved to monitor compliance. Likewise, agencies known to favor tobacco interests including IAC-T are involved in the formulation of its implementing rules and regulations (IRR).
Article 5.3 of the FCTC states that government should protect the formulation and implementation of public health policies for tobacco control from the tobacco industry to the greatest extent possible.
All other countries have the Ministry of Health as implementors of the GHW law. If this is approved, it is only in the Philippines where the agencies with tobacco industry interests are allowed to be involved in the implementation of a health measure.
Rojas warned that tobacco makers’ involvement as part of the group that will draft the law’s IRR might only encourage further influence of the tobacco industry in government affairs.
“There is a fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between the tobacco industry’s interests and public health policy interests. The intention of the law is to protect public health and the involvement of the tobacco industry here is an affront to the very goal of this policy,” said Rojas.