MANILA, Philippines – The health department has stood firm in its resolve to curb smoking-related health costs by pushing for an administrative order compelling cigarette firms to put graphic warnings on packs.
This despite failing to convince leading presidential bet Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III to be the country’s poster boy for quitting smoking, and despite successful efforts of tobacco companies to block the passage of the graphic health warning bill in Congress.
In a statement on Monday, the Department of Health (DOH) said it would be issuing Admistrative Order (AO) No. 2010-0013, a measure requiring cigarette firms to show a picture of a disease attributed to smoking on each cigarette pack.
Studies show that smoking and exposure to second-hand smoke lead to several preventable diseases including respiratory illness, heart diseases, and cancer.
The current text warnings—one of them says “Government Warning: Smoking is Dangerous to Your Health”—will accompany the graphic picture warnings.
In other countries, pictures of gangrenous toes, rotting teeth and gums, a pre-matured baby, diseased organs, a bed-ridden man undergoing treatment in hospital, and smoking-damaged hearts are prominently splashed on the cigarette packs.
Thirty days from the AO’s implementation, tobacco companies are prohibited from selling tobacco products without graphic warnings.
No law yet
The Philippines is a signatory to an international treaty, the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which was ratified in 2005. The treaty covers anti-smoking efforts, including the putting up of picture graphics on the pack.
While the Philippines has already passed the Tobacco Regulation Act, or Republic Act (R.A. 9211), in 2003, this law limited the health warnings on the pack to text.
Text warnings are more lenient than the FCTC guideline that demands picture warnings, which had been found to be more effective than the current text warnings. Most of the smokers in the Philippines belong to the lower economic classes, some of whom struggle to read texts in English.
Health Secretary Esperanza Cabral said the deadline to implement the FCTC’s guideline to require the printing of graphic warnings on cigarette packs should have started in 2008, but this was opposed by tobacco firms.
The Philippine Tobacco Institute, an association of leading tobacco companies, used R.A. 9211 to counter the DOH’s order. PTI said that the AO violates the law which only asks them to place text warnings.
Senate Bill 2377 and House Bill 3364, which are calling for graphic warnings in packages, have to return to square one after they were met with opposition by the cigarette industry and some lawmakers.
The bills want to cover with graphic warning at least 50% of the cigarette packs.
Manufacturers argue that placing colored pictures is costly, while some congressmen claimed that the measure would kill the livelihood of tobacco farmers, majority of them from the Ilocos region in the North.
Anti-smoking advocates, however, said the cigarette companies like Fortune Tobacco International and Philip Morris Philippines have been producing cigarette packs with graphic health warnings for export abroad.
Insiders from the tobacco industry and lawmakers privy to committee hearings told abs-cbnNews.com/Newsbreak that tobacco lobbyists even hand out cash to lawmakers for them to express opposition to the bill or delay its voting.
In pushing for the administrative order, the DOH argued that manufacturers that fail observe the international treaty will face fines up to P5 million, confiscation of their products, and closure of their outlets.
"I am appealing to the leaders of the next administration to ensure their passage into law in order to save more than 17.3 million current smokers in the country aged 15 years and above from further addiction and exposure to major health risks," Health secretary Esperanza Cabral said in the statement.
About 5 million people worldwide die from smoking-related diseases every year. Close to 90,000 of these deaths are from the Philippines.
Newsbreak estimates show that public spending from smoking-related diseases is 17 times more than the government revenues from tobacco in the country.
In a 2006 World Health Organization study, the tobacco brings in an average of P23 billion into the government coffers annually, while spending on smoking-related diseases reached P148.5 billion.
Many countries have been trying to identify ways to discourage smoking, either by raising sin taxes or putting graphic health warnings. At least 38 countries, including Canada and Thailand, have already the same anti-smoking policy in place. They see picture-based warnings an effective measure to curb down the growing number of smokers, especially among the youth.
The 2007 Global Youth Tobacco Survey recorded that smoking prevalence among Filipino youth aged 13 to 15 rose by 30% over the past two years.