Policy conference highlights urgency of amendments to Tobacco Regulation Act, restriction of electronic cigarettes

September 9, 2019

The Philippine Legislators’ Committee on Population and Development (PLCPD) organized a policy conference on tobacco control on August 23. Called “Fulfilling Filipinos’ right to health,” the policy conference was anchored on the interconnection between health and human rights in the hopes that right to health, which is universal and inalienable nature, will take primacy over business interests in the crafting of tobacco control laws that fulfill the State’s duty to protect its people and its obligations to the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC).

The event gathered representatives from different government agencies, the legislature, civil society and people’s organizations, and other stakeholders to discuss and consolidate advocacy plans and to come up with a comprehensive policy agenda that will be pushed for in the 18th Congress, 2019-2022.

In his opening remarks, Mr. Rom Dongeto, executive director of PLCPD, emphasized the importance of rights-based and health-oriented approach in policymaking and how this results in laws that genuinely cater to the needs of the people. He further emphasized in the context of huge development in health-related laws in the recent years, the importance of maximizing these gains as an opportunity to push for further health measures despite all the challenges that the advocates may face in the 18th Congress.

During the morning session, Dr. Rosalie Paje from the Department of Health discussed the prevalence of tobacco use in the Philippines and provided a brief discussion on current efforts by the government to address this burden of tobacco.

Atty. Jacky Sarita, managing director of HealthJustice, provided a survey of current tobacco regulations and the reforms needed in each area to make our country’s policies more compliant with Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. These include expansion of smoke-free environment, absolute ban on tobacco advertisement, promotion and sponsorship, and graphics health warning.

“Corporate Social Responsibility activities of tobacco companies tend to humanize them even though they sell products that kill,” warned Atty. Sarita.

Other reforms, according to him, must include increasing of the age of access to cigarettes from 18 to 21 years old, removal of the tobacco industry in the Inter-Agency Committee-Tobacco, prohibition of sale of tobacco products online, and prohibition of single-stick sale (tingi).

Mr. Filomeno Sta. Ana III, coordinator of Action for Economic Reforms talked about tobacco taxation as one of the most the effective ways to deter smoking, especially among the poor. The main message of his presentation on how tobacco taxation is good for revenue, health, and the poor.

“Tobacco is not just an issue of health, but an issue of the poor. The main consumers of tobacco and alcohol are the poor. It’s clear that the poor benefit from the taxation the most because they have the highest drop in smoking prevalence according to the data,” said Mr. Sta Ana.

Dr. Yul Dorotheo, executive director of theSoutheast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance, situated the Philippines in relation to its neighboring countries in Southeast Asia in terms of tobacco control regulations. According to him, the country is not lagging behind that much but there is still much to be done. For instance, the Philippines is the only country in Asia whose graphic health warnings are printed on the lower portion of the cigarette pack impinging its effectivity to deter smoking. Nevertheless, in the context of the recently enacted Universal Health Care Law and the additional tax on tobacco, Dr. Dorotheo sees a silver lining in what he considers as an emerging good practice in the Philippines.

“While this practice is more common in Europe, not many countries in Asia use excise taxes on tobacco for health expenditure. This is one of the best practices the Philippines has on tobacco,” said Dr. Dorotheo.

He also discussed the emerging concern on the use of new products, such as heated tobacco products and electronic nicotine delivery systems/electronic non-nicotine delivery systems (ENDS/ENNDS) or electronic cigarettes, which are currently unregulated. Several deaths and more than a hundred cases of lung diseases that can be attributed to the use of electronic cigarettes have been reported in the United States recently.

In the afternoon session, Dr. Loida Alzona of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) discussed the vital role of local government units (LGUs) in creating 100% smoke-free environments whose activities receive full support of MMDA.

After the plenary discussion, a workshop was held to identify priority measures in the 18th Congress and points of cooperation among advocates. Outputs centered on proposed revisions to the Tobacco Regulation Act, including regulation of heated tobacco products, strict regulation of electronic cigarettes, further tax measures on electronic cigarettes, and creation of mechanisms for monitoring of implementation and enforcement of the Executive Order no 26.

At the end of the activity, Ms. Au Quilala of PLCPD ensured the participants that the outputs of the workshops will be presented to the legislators and will be used as basis in engagements with PLCPD members and legislators on tobacco control advocacy.

The policy conference on tobacco control is part of a series of policy discussions for the 18th Congress that seek to identify priority human development agenda for the 18th Congress. The other themes in the series are: rural development and reproductive health.