By: Ernie Reyes, InterAksyon.com with Ruel Otieco
MANILA, Philippines – After years of being opposed by big tobacco firms, the bill that seeks to place graphic health warnings on cigarette packs to discourage Filipinos from smoking is now closer to becoming a law.
The bicameral conference committee on Tuesday reconciled the Senate and House of Representatives versions of the proposed life-saving legislation.
(Click here for the bicameral version of the graphic health warning bill)
Under the bill, tobacco products have to display picture-based health warnings in full color with accompanying text warnings on 50 percent of their principal display surfaces, according to Sen. Pilar Juliana “Pilar” Cayetano, principal author and sponsor of the proposed Picture Based Health Warning Act,
Also, the proposed measure would prohibit cigarette packages from bearing any descriptors or numbers such as, but not limited to low tar, light, ultra-light, or mild or extra or ultra and similar terms that claims or misleads a consumer to believe that a tobacco product or variant is healthier, safe or less harmful.
The bill also states that, “No cigarette packs or other tobacco packages shall contain information that may imply that one variant or brand is healthier, less harmful or safer than the other.”
Cayetano said the imposition of graphic health warnings at the front part of cigarette packages “is aimed at deterring smokers from starting the vice and being addicted to it as well as encourage existing smokers to drop the habit.” She said the warnings would also show the dangers of tobacco smoking or passive smoking.
It took so much effort for the Philippines to push for the passage of the bill because of strong opposition by big tobacco companies. In 2008, the version of the bill sponsored by Rep. Paul Daza was blocked by his colleagues in the House, who were reportedly given P20,000 each to oppose the proposed legislation. Also, Cayetano’s counterpart bill failed to make it at the Senate.
In 2010, then Department of Health (DOH) Secretary Esperanza Cabral issued Administrative Order No. 13 to implement the graphic warnings. However, five tobacco firms opposed the order and filed lawsuits in different courts. The cases remain pending.
A total of 240 Filipinos die everyday to smoking-related illnesses, based on estimates by the World Health Organization.
According to the non-government HealthJustice, “many of those addicted to tobacco products come from the poorest of the poor.”
“Considering the socio-economic profile of our country’s population, graphic health warnings are the most effective means of getting the most number of people to quit,” said HealthJustice’s Diana Trivino.
Under the current reconciled bill, the following government agencies would have the following tasks:
The bill would also mandate the DOH and DTI to lead in the drafting of the measure’s implementing rules and regulations (IRR) with the Department of Justice, Department of Agriculture, Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Department of Science and Technology, DepEd and National Tobacco Administration.
The IRR should be drafted within six months from the measure’s enactment. The drafting should be done in consultation with non-government organizations, farmers, and industry representatives.
There would be an exhaustion period of eight months after the compliance period by manufactures and importers.
Under the bill, the picture-based health warnings shall occupy to at least 50 percent of the principal display surfaces of any tobacco package, both at the front and back panels.
The picture-based health warnings shall be located at the lower portions of the said panels. Provided that in the event that the DOH determines that there are obstructions in the display, it can require health warnings to be moved to the upper portions when the next set of templates is released.
A maximum of 16 variations of picture-based health warnings shall be printed simultaneously and rotated periodically for each brand family and also for each variant, so that at any time within the 24-month period, the variations of the warnings shall appear in the market with approximately equal frequency and equal display of health warnings and messages on retail packages.
The DOH would be the lead agency to issue guidelines and administrative sanctions to facilitate the implementation of the law. It wiould also promulgate rules governing the hearings on alleged violations of the law.
The bill’s proposed penalties for non-compliance are:
For manufacturers, distributors and importers
For retailers and sellers