Seoul, Korea, November 22, 2012 — Days after the Philippines was recognized with an Orchid Award for excluding the National Tobacco Administration (NTA) from its official delegation to the 5th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP5) to the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), the COP followed its example by kicking out the public from its closed door committee meetings because of the presence of tobacco industry representatives.
As the important committee meetings began, the session’s chairperson expressed concern due to a “large presence” of tobacco growers and industry representatives in the public gallery. The general public was then asked to leave the gallery during the crucial discussion regarding tax and price measures to decrease tobacco use.
COP stands by its decision to boot tobacco industry, media and general public out
Amidst criticism by the tobacco growers and industry representatives, the COP stood firm on the decision to hold the meetings in private. “The tobacco industry behaves like a corrosive substance that can eat through, or seep through, any crack or fissure in the armour of our defences,” said Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization, in addressing the health advocates during the COP5. “Our response must be to seal all these cracks and fissures, one by one,” she added.
Uniting against tobacco industry interference
The decision to keep the public out of the discussions emphasized the importance of Article 5.3 of the FCTC, which obliges states to protect tobacco control policies against commercial interests of the industry. The WHO has singled out tobacco industry interference, the collective term used for strategies employed by the tobacco industry to subvert policies, to be the greatest threat to the FCTC’s lifesaving potential.
“The FCTC cannot succeed if the tobacco industry is not weeded out of tobacco control initiatives,” said Evita Ricafort, Project Manager of public health policy NGO HealthJustice. “Policy-building efforts like the COP have to be protected to ensure that they won’t be watered down,” she added.
Big tobacco’s attempts to gain access to the COP5 committee meetings were mirrored in the local tobacco control scene. Health advocates noted the strong tobacco industry influence throughout the sin tax hearings, such as Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s consultations on the floor with Carmen Herce and Mario Zinampan of Philip Morris Fortune Tobacco Corp. (PMFCT) and Japan Tobacco International’s (JTI) being allowed to present during the Recto Committee hearings. These legislators, among others, have been called out for mouthing pro-tobacco positions.
Philippines cited as other countries were censured for having tobacco industry delegates
The Philippines was recognized for its efforts to send out a tobacco-free delegation in observance of Article 5.3.
In contrast, other countries were called out for having tobacco representatives as part of their delegations. Vietnam was called out for having Two Vietnam Tobacco Association executives as part of their delegation and for suspiciously industry-friendly positions during the discussions. Likewise, the Brazilian government was criticized for recalling delegates representing the Health Ministry while allowing other delegates (mostly from the Agriculture Ministry) to remain.Zambia, Japan, China, and Italy were also panned for having tobacco industry representatives in their respective delegations.
PhilHealth Chief Operating Officer and former DOH Undersecretary Alex Padilla, the head of this year’s Philippine delegation to the COP, expressed his response to the citation as the head of the Philippine COP Delegation. “Change is coming. I was worried that we have become calloused by the consistently negative international recognition that we have been getting for the Philippines’ performance, or lack thereof, in tobacco control. I call on every Filipino to stand in line with the government as together, we continue the same effort in championing public health.”