'Watered-down' tobacco warning bill hit

Posted at 06/10/2014 6:15 PM | Updated as of 06/10/2014 6:15 PM

MANILA -- Former Department of Health executives, a former lawmaker and public health advocates on Tuesday collectively denounced the tobacco industry for "interfering" in the Graphic Health Warning (GHW) bill.

The Senate version of the Graphic Health Warning Bill stipulates that the graphic warning should cover at least 50% of the cigarette packs. It also has a clause that will allow the Department of Health (DOH), as the implementing body, to transfer the location of the picture to the top of the pack.

Meanwhile, the House version covers 40% of the bottom of cigarette packs, with the Inter-Agency Committee on Tobacco (IAC-T) as implementing body.

In a press conference, former Health Secretary Jimmy Galvez-Tan supported the Senate version of GHW bill, as it correctly mandates the DOH as the implementing body.

"The DOH is mandated to be the over-all technical authority on health. It is comprised of health professionals who can undertake further scientific and technical studies of the health impacts of tobacco," Galvez-Tan added.

"Tobacco industry is not and can never be a stakeholder in public health," said PhilHealth president and CEO Atty. Alex Padilla, who was the former DOH representative to IAC-T, in response to the House version of the GHW bill.

He pointed out that the IAC-T "cannot be trusted" and that it has failed to champion the health of Filipinos given that its mandate is to "balance the interest of trade and health."

Since 2003, the Philippine Tobacco Institute sits as a member of the IAC-T tasked with the implementation of Republic Act 9211 (Tobacco Regulation Act of 2003).

Padilla pointed out that this enables various tobacco companies “to interfere in decision-making despite their obvious conflict of interest.”

Atty. Emil Polig, chief of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) legal department, further added that the proposed GHW law should be enforced by the proper agencies in accordance with Republic Act 9711 (FDA Act of 2009) -- that is, the DOH and FDA, and not the IAC-T.

He recounted how various tobacco companies have filed over 12 cases against the government’s tobacco control measures, alleging vagueness of the law and excess of jurisdiction.

"Government and private individuals who have come head to head with the tobacco industry in court have not won a single case," Polig noted.

Atty. Ipat Luna, a trustee of HealthJustice Philippines, noted that the tobacco industry has lobbied all over the world to put images at the bottom of cigarette pack, “where it can be easily hidden or covered when held.”

“PNoy’s administration will be remembered worldwide as the only one to have kowtowed to tobacco companies," warned Luna if the health warnings are allowed to be placed at the bottom portion of cigarette packs.

Former Congressman Lorenzo "Erin" Tañada III, one of the authors of a GHW bill in 2007, recounted how tobacco company representatives approached him and other lawmakers to negotiate the contents of the bill.

“We were outnumbered,” he said in describing the technical working group meeting that was populated by congressmen from the Northern Luzon Alliance, who each took turn challenging the need for the bill. The bill was never passed by the House.

Tañada testified that tobacco industry interference in the legislature is “very real,” and that there is a need to protect the bicameral meeting from it.

Bicameral meetings are held to reconcile conflicting provisions in a bill, after which, the final enrolled form is transmitted to Malacañang for approval.