MANILA — On January 24, a group of medical doctors called for an urgent press conference in an effort to reverse what they described as a "public health nightmare".
The gathering was virtual, but the tension was palpable as the former head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and ranking officials of some medical societies made their case against the controversial “pro-industry” vape regulation bill.
A day ago, on Jan. 19, the bicameral conference committee of the Senate and House of Representatives had just finished consolidating their versions of the bill, and the fate of the measure was now up to President Rodrigo Duterte.
"Mr. President, we appeal to you to veto the vape bill in its entirety," Dr. Maricar Limpin said.
Limpin, president of the Philippine College of Physicians, could not have predicted the turn of events.
Two years earlier, the public health advocate was even lauding Duterte for banning the public use and importation of vaping products.
At that time, it was the vaping industry and advocates, such as Dr. Lorenzo Mata of “Quit For Good," who were on the other side of the coin.
With the reversal of fortunes, Limpin could not help but point at the “culprits” that they believed were responsible for their predicament.
"Masama ang loob namin sa legislators. Ang pinakinggan nila ‘yung industriya lamang. Bakit itong mga industriya ang lalakas sa legislators na ito?" she questioned.
(We are so mad at these legislators. They ignored us and listened only to the industry. Why does the industry have so much power over them?)
FROM 'HEALTH' TO 'COMMERCE' BILL
The legislative journey of the vape bill was one of the most controversial in the 18th Congress.
In Nov. 2019, House Deputy Majority Leader Rep. Bernadette Herrera-Dy called vaping a "new public health menace" that “merits a forceful set of responses.”
The bill, she promised, would make sure that minors will be banned from buying vape products, and vape juice flavors will be limited to tobacco and menthol.
"The fruity and other flavors are there to deceive buyers, especially the young, into liking vaping because of the flavors," Herrera-Dy was quoted as saying.
During the same period, ACT-CIS Rep. Jocelyn Tulfo recognized the threat of vaping and the FDA’s role in regulating it.
“Given the seriousness of the threat to public health that vaping poses especially to the youth, the prudent, yet forceful response is for the FDA to order the recall of all vaping products being sold in the country,” Tulfo said.
But what the House of Representatives passed on May 25, 2021 was opposite of what some lawmakers initially told the public.
No less than House Committee on Health chair Angelina Helen Tan said the bill "pretends to be a health measure for all but only gives primordial consideration to trade and commercial interests of the few."
Herrera-Dy and Tulfo, who previously advocated for a “strict" vape regulation, voted in favor of the “watered-down” version of the bill, based on Congressional records.
In Oct. 2020, as the FDA was in the thick of its public hearings on crafting its regulation on vaping products as mandated by law, congressmen DV Savellano, Wes Gatchalian, and Estrellita Suansing, who attended one of the forums, noticed an “irregularity.”
“Dun namin na-notice na meron silang regulation na instead na dapat public hearing, pakinggan nila ‘yung stakeholders, what they did is gumawa na sila ng guidelines without consultation. ‘Yun ‘yung nag-trigger for me to research. Na-find out namin na meron palang, isa sa donors nila ay Bloomberg, which is against tobacco,” Suansing told ABS-CBN News.
(We noticed there that they already came up with a regulation even without consulting the stakeholders. That’s what prompted me to research. That’s where I found out that the FDA has received a grant from Bloomberg Initiative to Reduce Tobacco Use.)
On Dec. 1, 2020, the FDA finalized Administrative Order 2020-0055, which sets tough guidelines on the sale and distribution of vape products.
But just a day later, Suansing and Savellano, representative of tobacco-producing province Ilocos Sur, sought a full-blown investigation into the FDA’s “questionable receipt” of foreign funding that could be tantamount to “foreign interference” that “undermined” the country’s sovereignty.
Two hearings were conducted between March and June of the next year.
During the latter hearing, which lasted over 3 hours, lawmakers—many of whom also favored the loosened vape regulation bill—took turns to lash out at FDA, accusing the agency of potentially allowing “foreigners” to dictate tobacco policy in the Philippines.
Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez argued FDA might have violated 3 Philippine laws in utilizing the $150,000—or roughly P7 million in current exchange rate—Bloomberg grant:
- Section 70 of Republic Act 6713 or the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees
- Section 11 paragraphs 1 and 3 of Batas Pambansa Blg. 39 or the Foreign Agents Act of 1979
- Sec 3-E of Republic Act 3019 or the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act
But the FDA stood its ground and insisted that under Republic Act 9711, the law that created the agency, accepting grants, donations, and other endowments from local and “external sources,” in accordance with pertinent laws, rules, and regulations, is allowed.
“In the memorandum of agreement signed, there was no exact provision that they (Bloomberg) would have oversight or they will contribute to the policies of FDA,” said FDA director Ana Rivera, who oversaw the implementation of projects under the grant.
Rivera added that all their policies on tobacco are guided by the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, of which the Philippines is a signatory.
However, lawmakers refused to yield their position that the FDA had been “compromised” by the grant.
Muntinlupa Rep. Ruffy Biazon, who witnessed how his colleagues criticized the FDA, found the timing of the hearings “curious.”
“Of course it’s curious ‘yung circumstances. If you take a look at it, we just came from a long deliberation, of debate and voting on the ENDS/ENNDS (electronic nicotine and non-nicotine delivery systems) bill. You have to take it into that context,” Biazon told ABS-CBN News.
Biazon was one of the few lawmakers who defended the FDA during the investigations. For Biazon, there was nothing wrong with FDA’s receipt of the Bloomberg grant.
“When I was listening to the proceedings and sa readings ko, hindi ko naman nakikita na may violation (I did not see the alleged violation they were talking about)… Did it change government policy? It did not because the government policy is anti-tobacco, or at least strong tobacco control. That was the position. So even if Bloomberg gave funding, it did not change government policy, it even strengthened it,” a puzzled Biazon said.
Asked what could have motivated his colleagues to antagonize FDA, Biazon refused to answer, but said everything seemed to be orchestrated.
“Ang sumunod na na hearing after that [House approval of the vape bill] ay ‘yun nang [probe against FDA), may nag-file na ng resolution questioning FDA about the grant, so parang you have that impression na talagang na-demolish ang FDA,” he said.
(The next hearing after we approved the vape bill was the FDA probe. So you have the impression that the FDA was being demolished.)
WHAT THE WATCHDOG SAYS
“It’s because the FDA, as mandated by laws, must develop [vape] regulation… The tobacco industry did not like how strict it was kaya naghahanap sila ng butas (so they were finding fault). So they’re trying to undermine the FDA,” Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA) executive director Dr. Ulysses Dorotheo told ABS-CBN News.
With the regulation of vapes now poised to be with the DTI, Dorotheo said the tobacco industry was working hard to discredit the FDA.
“The hearing on [Bloomberg] funding is in a way a smokescreen. But also to attack the FDA, that it’s not a credible regulatory agency,” Dorotheo noted.
What shocked Dorotheo was legislators were attacking the regulatory agencies, and mirroring the arguments of the tobacco industry.
While Biazon admitted having no first-hand knowledge how tobacco industry players operate in Congress, he enumerated how lobbyists “do their work.”
“What can a lobbyist do? Of course they can talk to legislators. Sometimes puwedeng magbigay ng tulong (they can give aid). Kunwari sasabihin ‘sa district niyo we can help’ o kung ano man ang mapag-usapan nila (They’ll say ‘we can help your district.’ Depends on what they come up with). But I don't know in particular how tobacco companies do it or if they do it,” Biazon said.
Suansing, who initiated the probe against FDA, denied being swayed by lobby groups or the tobacco industry itself.
“Hindi naman kami nai-influence sa Congress ng any industry. Kami marunong kami mag-aral, may researchers… Ako galit ako pag ganon kasi ako nga binangga ko nga ang large companies,” she said.
(We are not influenced in congress. We study, we have researchers. I personally condemn that because I have fought large companies as a congressman.]
She also rejected that the FDA investigation was “orchestrated” by the tobacco industry to smear FDA.
“I want this to be clear… It (the probe) is not [to undermine FDA's authority]. ‘Yung purpose talaga ng resolution na ‘yon is to find out kung tumatanggap sila ng donation na makaka-influence sa kanilang decision for coming up with guidelines… Walang ibang reason,” she said.
(The purpose of my investigation is to find out if the FDA is accepting donations from groups that might affect its function as a regulatory body. There’s no other reason.)
But regardless of its original intention, it cannot be denied that the tobacco industry was a beneficiary of the FDA probes.
During the height of the House panel hearings, press releases were issued by pro-vaping organizations such as Coalition of Asia Pacific Tobacco Harm Reduction Advocates (CAPHRA) and International Network of Nicotine Consumer Organisations (INNCO) casting doubt on FDA's integrity as an oversight body.
CAPHRA was so involved in the development of the vape bill in the Philippines that they tapped local public relations (PR) practitioner Jena Fetalino as their local point person.
ABS-CBN News reached out multiple times to Fetalino to inquire about the details of her engagement with CAPHRA but she has yet to respond.
The 18-month transitory period given to the industry to comply with FDA Administrative Order 2020-0055 ends this month, making the contested guideline effective. The vape bill is threatening to undo this.
Will Duterte, who once called vaping "toxic," listen to the calls of medical experts?
This reporting is funded, in part, by a grant from STOP, a global tobacco industry watchdog. The content is fully editorially independent.
Congress, vape, vaping, vape bill, DTI, FDA, Food and Drug Administration, Senate, House of Representatives, Philippine College of Physicians