MANILA - Senator Pia Cayetano had a revelation while pushing for the law on graphic health warnings: passing the bill was actually harder than passing the Reproductive Health (RH) Law.
Cayetano, principal author of Senate Bill 27 or the Picture-Based Warning Law, said both bills had to hurdle intense lobbying from groups intent on barring the bills' passage.
"They were very similar. The lobby was so intense. Honestly...RH was easier because I knew who I was up against. [Here] You just never know who is going to come at you and surprise you with statements on the Senate floor like: 'Why are you focusing on smoking? There are other health issues that are more important? Do people really die from smoking? Does smoking really cause death?' Come on, how can you deny that smoking causes death?" she said in an interview on ANC's Headstart.
On Tuesday, the bicameral conference committee reconciled the Senate and House of Representatives versions of the bill, which will then need ratification before Congress goes into sine die adjournment.
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.
Cayetano said there will be 12 templates of different designs that will rotate over a span of two years. "Within two years, all the cigarettes palit ng palit yan para hindi magsawa. We want people to get shocked when they see it," she said.
Once passed into law, the tobacco industry has a year to comply to allow them to purchase machines needed to put the warnings on cigarette packages.
Manufacturers were also given an 8-month extension for them to exhaust their current stocks in the market before penalties are imposed.
Both the Department of Health and the Department of Trade and Industry will act as lead agencies in implementing the law.
According to HealthJustice, at least 90,000 Filipinos die of tobacco-related illnesses every year.
Cayetano said it took lawmakers 7 years and 3 Congresses to pass the bill, which seeks to place graphic health warnings on cigarette packs.
Some of the challenges raised against the bill were expected, others not.
"Some asked: how sure are you that the warnings are effective? What about the cost?" she recounted.
The lawmaker said there are studies in Australia and Canada that show that graphic warnings could account for a 12 percent to 20 percent drop in youth smoking. "Some might look at the pictures and go: 'Well, let me die a happy death' but the youth are definitely affected," she said.
She scored claims by some lobbyists that local manufacturers cannot print the graphic warnings.
"It will be very expensive to print the photos and we don't have the technology. Really? But we export cigarettes to Thailand with graphic warnings. And we don't have the technology? Come on," she said.
Cayetano also said the passage of the sin tax bill answers questions about the possible economic effect of lower tobacco sales on farmers.
"We did the sin tax and excise tax first so that when members of Congress come to us and say: 'Oh, we have to protect our farmers', I say 'Yes, we did that with the sin tax and excise tax.' Those taxes will give back to the farmers, the Virginia Tobacco farmers, billions of pesos to help rehabilitate and even shift to a different crop," she said.
In the House, there were also questions about assigning the DOH to lead in the monitoring of the implementation of the law.
"Obviously this is a health measure. It is an Act to effectively instill health consciousness through picture-based health warnings. And yet in the House, they had a big problem with the DOH being the lead agency. Well, I said it is simple. Let us just accept that DOH will always be an agency that industries like tobacco will not like. They will always be at each other's throats because DOH will never acknowledge there is anything healthy about this product. Unlike food, you can say this amount of fat or coffee or a glass of wine is good. With tobacco, there is no amount of nicotine that is safe," she said.
Cayetano, however, admitted that there were compromises in the reconciled bill due to lobbying.
She said her original version of placing graphic health warnings on 60 percent of the front and back panels of the cigarette packs was cut down to just 50 percent.
This was after Senator Juan Ponce Enrile proposed that only 35 percent of the fronts and backs of the cigarette packs be covered by the picture warnings.
The House version proposed 40 percent display of health warnings but agreed with the Senate version.
The reconciled bill also watered down the penalties on manufacturers, importers and distributors of tobacco products.
Under the reconciled version, manufacturers, distributors and importers will be fined not more than P500,000 for a first offense, not more than P1 million for a second offense; and not more than P2 million or imprisonment of not more than 5 years or both plus revocation of business permit for a third offense.
For retailers and sellers, the penalties are not more than P10,000 for a first offense, not more than P50,000 for a second offense; and not more than P100,000 or imprisonment of not more than 1 year or both with business permit revoked for a third offense.
"In the Senate version, we went up to P20 million (in penalties) but that was part of the lobby. In the House, the highest that they have now is P2 million...In any case, despite the fact that the penalties are not as high as I put forth, the fact remains that it is very simple to monitor this. Pak, put it there. Mas kahihiyan nila na wag sundin," Cayetano said.
She added: "They will lose their business permit and that can also include imprisonment. Many of those companies are foreign companies and that will include the president and GM who knows about these, they can be deported."
Another source of contention is the inclusion of the Inter-Agency Committee on Tobacco (IAC-T) among the groups that will craft the implementing rules and regulations (IRR) of the graphic warnings bill.
One of the members of the IAC-T is the Philippine Tobacco Institute.
"This is where the compromise came in. We allowed the IAC-T to have a role and that is to monitor and ensure that all establishments are compliant...Health advocates including myself do not believe IAC-T should be part of this but to give them a role we agreed that they should monitor," she said.
Cayetano said she does not see anything that will stop the passage of the bill into law. "I don't think PNoy will veto it," she said.
She said that when she scheduled the hearings on the graphic warnings bill, she was surprised that all the tobacco companies said they would support it.
"I was surprised that all of the tobacco companies said they will support. I said 'Wow, seriously? Is this a joke. Is it my lucky day?' Sometimes it just takes time for them to realize tama na. When we started seven years ago, there was only a few. They probably felt they could still resist," she said.
"There is also, I think, social pressure and corporate responsibility. To deny this is not living up to social responsibility. I think they realized that this is the responsible thing to do and that is what many of them said," she added.