Manila, Philippines. – “It is our right to be informed about how tobacco products can harm us.” This was the plea of public health advocates as they urged lawmakers to support the graphic health warnings bills during the hearing for the same before the Senate Committee on Health and Demography last January 22, 2014.
Graphic health warnings (GHWs) are vivid, picture-based warnings accurately depicting very real effects of smoking and exposure to tobacco smoke. Imagine blackened lungs, a yellowed, enlarged heart, a gangrenous foot with decomposing skin tissue – these are just some of the very gruesome side effects that cigarette packs currently sold in the Philippines do not warn consumers about.
“No one, not even tobacco companies can argue against the fact that cigarettes cause death and disease,” said Atty. Diana Trivino, project manager of health policy NGO HealthJustice. “This is why more than 40% of the world’s population, covered by over 63 jurisdictions world-wide are protected by policies requiring graphic health warnings (GHWs) on cigarette packs.”
As a State Party to the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC), the Philippines is obliged to implement policies requiring GHWs on cigarette packs. 2014 marks the 6th year that the Philippines has failed to meet its treaty deadline to mandate these.
Health advocates mourn the countless lives lost to tobacco for every day that GHWs are not mandated. The World Health Organization reports that 240 Filipinos die every day because of a tobacco-related disease.
Why don’t we have graphic health warnings in the Philippines?
Past efforts to place GHWs on Philippine cigarette packs have been repeatedly blocked. In 2008, the graphic health warning house bill sponsored by Representative Paul Daza was blocked by congressmen who were reportedly given P20,000 each to oppose the bill. The senate counterpart bill filed by Senator Pia Cayetano was likewise not passed. In 2010, the Department of Health under then Health Secretary Esperanza Cabral attempted to implement graphic health warnings through an administrative order. This move was met by five different lawsuits filed by tobacco companies – these cases are still pending before our courts today.
Why are graphic health warnings necessary?
“Tobacco use is an issue of social justice,” said Irene Reyes, Managing Director of HealthJustice. “It is the poor who suffer the most from tobacco addiction, and it is they who need to understand its consequences the most. Graphic health warnings will most effectively convey the harms of tobacco use and eliminate communication and literacy inequalities among our country’s people.”
A recent study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health found that graphic health warnings have the strongest impact among all demographic groups, cutting across race, ethnicity, education, and income.
Apart from merely making an impact, more and more studies are proving that graphic health warnings actually work.
The Tobacco Control Journal reports that GHWs were responsible for reducing the smoking prevalence in Canada by as much as 12 – 20%. The Nicotine and Tobacco Research arm of Oxford Journal recently reported that graphic health warnings are the most effective in convincing everyone, especially young adults, not to smoke.
“Now, just as it has been then in 2010 when we first tried to implement picture warnings on cigarette packs, it is clear to me that these have the greatest potential to save the greatest number of lives,” said former Health Secretary Dr. Esperanza Cabral. “It is a fact that 240 Filipinos die every day because of a disease caused by tobacco. That’s 262,800 lives that we could have saved if we were able to implement Graphic Health Warnings on cigarette packs in 2010. Though that has not happened yet, we continue to fight for this chance to preserve public health.”