The Tobacco Industry may use its influence over our LGU’s and Agencies regarding Regulations on the sale and use of cigarettes and vapes.

The tobacco industry is relentless in its attack [by using corporate social activities] knowing that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Department of Health (DOH) are tied up because of COVID-19.

This was underscored by former DOH Undersecretary and now FDA Director General Rolando Enrique Domingo during the launch of the 2020 Philippine Tobacco Industry Interference Index last 21 September. The index provides indicators on the extent of the tobacco industry’s interference in government regulation of its products.

The Index, developed by Health Justice Philippines and the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA), cites that the Philippines scored 45 in 2017, 54 in 2018, and 57 in 2019. This increasing trend indicates that the industry is becoming more bold in influencing government policies on tobacco control.

House passes pro-industry bill

HealthJustice President Mary Ann Mendoza cited the recent passage of a bill on e-cigarette in the House of Representatives to underscore the influence of the tobacco industry in policy works.

“The House just voted for a bill that is obviously drafted by the industry. That bill undermined the law that we worked hard for. It lowered the age of access to e-cigarettes, clipped the powers of the FDA and allowed [Filipinos] easy online access [to e-cigarettes],” Mendoza noted.

Mendoza was referring to the House of Representatives Committee of Trade and Industry’s recently approved bill regulating the manufacture, sale and distribution of vapes, e-cigarettes and other electronic nicotine and non-nicotine delivery systems. Approved last month, the bill lowered the age of accessibility to 18 and allowed e-cigarettes manufacturers to sell more flavors. This was a complete reversal of RA 11467 that limits e-cigs flavors to tobacco and menthol. RA 11467, which President Rodrigo Duterte signed in January this year, prohibited 21 years old and below from buying e-cigarettes. It also identified the FDA as the lead agency on e-cigarette regulation.

Tobacco control advocates feel that this bill reeks of tobacco industry influence as the terms are all favorable to them.

CSR as a tool to gain favor

The tobacco industry has used the current pandemic to position itself as a responsible corporate citizen. Across the country, PMFTC’s Embrace program has donated food packs, school supplies, ventilators, and personal protective equipment to various local government units and government agencies. This, despite the presence of the DOH-CSC Joint Memorandum Circular that prohibits government agencies and personnel from interacting with the tobacco industry.

“Obviously, the industry saw huge opportunity during this pandemic. They know people are in need of help and they stepped up, presented itself as a responsible corporate citizen, and reached out to the most vulnerable – even targeting LGUs with strong tobacco control measures,” noted Atty. Karl Marx Carumba, Legal Consultant of HealthJustice.

Tobacco control advocates, referring to experiences in the past, know that these donations do not come free. “There is a higher chance that these LGUs will either pass a weak tobacco control policy or amend their existing one to accommodate the industry,” Carumba added.

“While the public perceives that such donations are helpful – and we acknowledge that some of these fill the needs of the communities – we encourage the public to be more circumspect and see beyond the dole-outs. The packs of groceries that were distributed today may be equal to weak policies tomorrow that may put their health at greater risk,” Carumba added.

The Tobacco Industry Interference Index is a yearly document released by HealthJustice to determine the extent of industry influence in local and national policies.