By: Tricia Aquino, InterAksyon.com
MANILA – Public health groups and medical associations have already chosen 22 “gory” and “effective” photos to be placed on cigarette packs following the enactment of the Graphic Health Warning Law in July. However, Filipinos will have to wait for Health Secretary Enrique Ona to sign an administrative order approving the photos, the template of the cigarette packs, and the guidelines of the law before the graphic health warnings are finally rolled out.
This is according to the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA), public health think tank HealthJustice, and the office of ANG NARS partylist Representative Leah Paquiz, who outlined the long waiting period in a recent media briefing.
Dr. Ulysses Dorotheo, project director of SEATCA Southeast Asia Initiative on Tobacco Tax, explained that tobacco companies would have a year to comply with the law after the administrative order is released. By then, they would have begun producing the cigarette packs with graphic health warnings.
They were also given an eight-month extension on top of the one-year period to sell all their old stocks. Thus, it would take 20 months after the administrative order is signed before all cigarette packs in the country finally bear graphic health warnings.
“We are really looking forward to the graphic health warnings and we really hope that it is released soon. The sooner it is released, the sooner the Philippines will be exposed to graphic health warnings that will educate them about the harms of smoking,” said Atty. Patricia Miranda of HealthJustice. Miranda serves as counsel for public interest cases against the tobacco industry.
According to political affairs officer Anna Kapunan, who works for the office of ANG NARS partylist Representative Leah Paquiz, the photos chosen by the panel of experts also went through focus group discussions held by the Department of Health.
The DOH showed a number of photos already previously used by Brazil, Thailand, and Singapore in their graphic health warnings, to 40 participants aged 15 to 40, including smokers and nonsmokers. The agency then selected the photos that were the most effective in getting the smokers to stop, and the nonsmokers to not start.
The ones that were the most “gory,” “effective,” and had “a big impact” made the list, said Kapunan, although she declined to describe the actual photos.
Campaign in schools
She said ANG NARS planned to go to schools to talk to high school and college students about the harmful effects of smoking before the graphic health warnings were launched.
“It’s very important that the youth [get] the chance to understand why it’s important for them to not start smoking,” she said.
Kapunan added that Congresswoman Paquiz is now sponsoring the Promotion Bill, which would install health programs in government agencies through funds from sin taxes. They are now lobbying for other congresspersons to co-sponsor the bill. Paquiz will also write Communications Secretary Sonny Coloma so the legislation will be listed among President Benigno Aquino III’s priority bills for next year.
Paquiz, who wrote House Bill 2740 or the “Picture-Based Health Warning Law,” originally wanted at least 80 percent of the upper portions of the cigarette pack to contain a graphic health warning.
Still, she said in a statement released Thursday that the passage of the law, mandating only 50 percent of the lower portions of the cigarette pack would contain a graphic health warning, was “a momentous event and a reason for all of us to celebrate.”
Paquiz stressed that the tobacco industry’s lobbying in the policymaking process proved to be “hurdles and obstacles” which health advocates faced in getting the law to be passed.
“We were already forewarned that people would be talking to us. If we knew that they were with the tobacco industry, we did not set any more leeway for them to get in touch with us,” Kapunan recalled.
She said a law firm representing a tobacco company had written them, and other lawmakers, before the passage of the law to request for a meeting so they could present a study supposedly showing that graphic health warnings did not affect consumer choices.
“We did not want to open doors of communication with them. We did not reply. Dedma (We ignored them),” said Kapunan.
Tobacco firms’ ‘CSR’ still a hurdle
Miranda, meanwhile, said that there are laws on tobacco interference in government. The World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which in 2005 the Senate concurred in, states under Article 5.3 that “Parties shall act to protect these policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry.”
She also mentioned the Civil Service Commission-DOH Joint Memorandum Circular No. 2010-01 on protection against tobacco industry interference. It covers all government officials and employees.
Forms of tobacco industry interference include corporate social responsibility activities. Miranda showed photos of recent examples, such as the monetary donation of former Philip Morris president Chris Nelson to widows of slain soldiers in 2012, which was accepted by Vice President Jejomar Binay in their behalf.
Another picture showed National Tobacco Administrator Edgardo Zaragoza and Mighty Corp. president Edilberto Adan together in a tree-planting activity this year.
Philip Morris also wrote local government units such as Albay and Ormoc asking to be invited to deliberations on tobacco control ordinances.
“There’s more. It’s just the tip of the iceberg,” said Miranda.
Tobacco farmers in cycle of poverty
Meanwhile, Dorotheo took tobacco companies to task for supposedly trapping tobacco farmers in the cycle of poverty.
At the start of the planting season, he said, farmers signed contracts with tobacco companies which required them to get their seedlings, pesticides, and other supplies from the tobacco companies. At the end of the growing season, they were then obliged to sell their leaves at specific prices. Even though tobacco companies paid the farmers above the floor prices required by National Tobacco Administration, these were still very low.
“They do not help farmers get out of their poverty. They are able to earn enough to send their child to school, but that’s about it,” added Dorotheo.
He recalled how during his visit to tobacco farmers in Ilocos, he found that they only earned at best P5,000 a month. “Tapos may apat na anak ka pa (What if you have four children on top of that)? You can’t survive on P60,000 a year. Malaki po talaga ang kailangang gawin ng ating pamahalaan para sa tobacco farmers (Our government still has to do a lot for our tobacco farmers).”