Monday, October 31, 2016
Philippines - SEATCA hails PH implementation of tobacco Graphic Health Warnings Law
MANILA - Approaching the November deadline for compliance with the Graphic Health Warnings Law, the Philippines "shines as a leader" in Southeast Asia in the campaign against the interference of the tobacco industry in crafting policies for a healthy populations, according to Dr. Mary Assunta Kolandai, senior policy advisor to the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA), in a press conference at the World Health Organization Regional Office for the Western Pacific (WPRO) in Manila.
In the Philippines, all cigarette packages must have graphic health warnings by November, as prescribed by Republic Act No. 10643, or the Graphic Health Warnings Law.
Kolandai presented the 2016 Tobacco Industry Interference Index, which measures how nine countries in the region fared with regard to Article 5.3 of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC), which states that countries "need to be alert to any efforts by the tobacco industry to undermine or subvert tobacco control efforts," and have to be "informed of activities of the tobacco industry that have a negative impact on tobacco control efforts."
The Philippines ranked second, behind Brunei Darussalam, in its implementation of Article 5.3. It is followed by Cambodia and Malaysia, both coming in third, then Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Indonesia.
Kolandai added that the Philippines was "leading the way" in curbing interaction with the tobacco industry, pointing out that, while Brunei maintained its good standing, the Philippines had introduced concrete measures to prevent or reduce tobacco industry interference.
She lauded the Code of Conduct for civil servants, which acts as a firewall between Filipino public officials and the tobacco industry.
Atty. Krunimar Escudero III of the Civil Service Commission elaborated that the CSC-Department of Health Joint Memorandum Circular 2010-01 (JMC) is a policy that prohibits government officials from interacting with the tobacco industry.
"The only interaction that may happen is when the government agency wields the function of supervision, regulation, and control over the industry," he said.
The goal is to protect public officials from being influenced by the tobacco industry.
Unfortunately, many local government units (LGUs) have been "notorious" for violating the JMC.
"The tobacco industry takes advantage of the sometimes lack of awareness in the LGUs, especially their leaders," Escudero said.
He recalled instances where he would call up LGU leaders and ask about their meetings with representatives of the tobacco industry. They honestly did not know that they should not have done that.
Sure enough, when he checked up with them afterwards, they told him that representatives of the tobacco industry tried to meet up with them again, and they declined.
Escudero said the CSC had recorded several "tactics" of the tobacco industry to try to interfere with policy formation, especially in LGUs when these try to formulate ordinances for smoke-free spaces.
For example, tobacco industry representatives would suggest that LGUs exclude provisions that ought to be standard, according to the FCTC. They would try to insert provisions favorable to them in the policies, or try to lower the LGUs' standards.
In short, they tried to water down ordinances and public health policies, or prolong or stall the local legislation processes.
As for policies that were already in place, they would quiz about the enforcement of these, or take advantage of lapses in enforcement, as well as the public's lack of awareness regarding existing laws.
The tobacco industry would also try co-opting tactics like donating funds or equipment to the LGU, or sponsor town activities.
Kolandai noted that tobacco companies had also increased their spending on corporate social responsibility projects in Southeast Asia.
Philip Morris International (PMI), for example, reportedly spends US$1.8 million on CSR in the Philippines. According to the report, it increased its spending in the Philippines, Malaysia, and Thailand from USD 1.5 million in 2009 to USD 2.5 million in 2015.
The problem, according to the report, was that "tobacco companies use CSR activities to circumvent laws regulating the industry, and deploying strategies to gain access to elected officials who are empowered to approve and implement tobacco control policies."
Kolandai noted that CSR activities conducted by tobacco companies are not banned in Southeast Asia, although Article 5.3 recommends that countries "denormalize" such activities.
She believed that among the countries, there needed to be more transparency with regard to government officials' interaction with representatives of the tobacco industry.
She said all such interactions must be disclosed, and government officials need to record and document all their meetings, and their outcomes.
Kolandai added that only Brunei, Malaysia, and Myanmar refused to accommodate requests from the tobacco industry for a longer implementation timeline or postponement of the tobacco control law in 2015.
To avoid conflict of interest, Brunei also prohibited political contributions from the tobacco industry.
The tobacco sector must not be treated like any other industry or investor, Kolandai said.
Tobacco use, after all, kills approximately six million people every year worldwide.
The Western Pacific Region has one third of the world's smokers. Here, two persons die every minute from tobacco-related diseases.
"Based on our monitoring, there's been partial compliance with the graphic warning requirement," Health Justice Philippines managing director Irene Reyes said.
Dr. Susan Mercado, director of Noncommunicable Diseases and Health through the Life-Course at the WPRO, wants the next step to be standardized or plain packaging.
Here, graphic health warnings are to cover as much as 80 percent of the cigarette pack. The brand name will be "very small", and there will be no attractive design or modifiers like "light" and "no tar".