CABUGAO, Ilocos Sur — Shirley Pichay, 38, is a wife and mother of two. But around here, she is known…
Amid strides in preventing the tobacco industry, once dubbed as “the strongest tobacco lobby in Asia,” from advancing its business interests, a nonprofit group urged the government to strictly uphold and strengthen its public health initiatives as companies continue to circumvent policies.
Seven years since a policy against industry interference was passed, HealthJustice Philippines in its fourth index report revealed the government has yet to fully address the challenges in the form of “loopholes” in the law and its weak implementation.
“Much has been accomplished,” HealthJustice President Mary Ann Mendoza said Sept. 29 at the launch of the 2017 Tobacco Industry Interference Index Country Report in Quezon City.
But she maintained the tobacco industry interference, or the intrusive behavior of companies to “thwart” public health policies, remains a grave public health and governance concern.
Conflicts of interest continue to persist even as partnerships have subsided, the report noted. Tobacco companies found a way to circumvent the law through its corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts, which the group warned influence policymaking.
The group singled out in its report the Philip Morris Fortune Tobacco Corporation (PMFTC), which in 2016 partnered with the government for a summit on climate change.
More, former government officials now work with tobacco companies, the report added, citing the case of former Solicitor General Estelito Mendoza, who counsels PMFTC chair Lucio Tan.
The group warned that such partnership goes against the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control which mandates the Philippines, one of 181 signatories, to protect its public health policies from the tobacco industry’s commercial interests.
The joint memorandum circular 2010-01, signed by the Civil Service Commission (CSC) and Department of Health (DOH) in 2010, forbids government agencies from interacting with the tobacco industry in compliance with the treaty.
“The tobacco companies have circumvented the policies through indirect partnerships,” the report said.
At the forum during the launch, CSC Assistant Commissioner Ariel Ronquillo said companies’ CSR efforts usually have an ulterior motive “to weaken tobacco control policies.”
Mendoza also recalled PMFTC launched a campaign that commits to “a smoke-free world.”
Commenting on the campaign, Ulysses Dorotheo of the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance said the idea in itself is a contradiction.
“If they’re very serious about phasing out tobacco use, then they should stop producing cigarettes,” he said. “They cannot pretend that they are for a smoke-free world and at the same time, the bulk of the profits is still from the cigarette. That’s a contradiction.”
The report also said dealings between government and tobacco companies are also riddled with a lack of transparency, with the CSC itself in the dark about such proceedings.
“There is also a continuing need for vigilance,” HealthJustice said in its report. “Advocates need to be more active in exposing tobacco industry tactics.”
But Ronquillo, echoing the report, lamented that many of the problems lie with the law itself, making it easy for tobacco companies to get away with such antics.
Recently, the DOH began to address the discrepancies under the Tobacco Regulation Act of 2013, which has allowed tobacco companies and other groups that forward their interests to sit in the Inter-Agency Committee on Tobacco.
“How can we plan our strategies also to circumvent the tactics of the tobacco industry when they are a member?” Health Assistant Secretary Maria Francia Laxamana said at the forum.
Despite good news that the government does not support policies drafted by tobacco companies, their mere presence is already alarming, HealthJustice said.
For instance, sitting at the committee is the National Tobacco Administration, which “furthers the interest of the tobacco industry,” the report said.
The DOH attends to legislative hearings, while preparing position papers that may amend the law. Dorotheo said two bills that will amend the law were filed in the House of Representatives.
“The (DOH) will continue to be on guard to ensure that the policies will be implemented,” Laxamana said.
The health official supports the report’s findings that amendment is also needed for the joint memo, foremost of which is to better define the parameters of tobacco industries.
The joint memorandum, in its current form, may as well disallow local vendors from selling cigarettes to any government official.
In amending the policy, Ronquillo noted it is currently difficult to identify that the entity knocking on the doors of a government agency may be a part of a tobacco industry or not.
“We are rationalizing it to really focus on those having really the intent of committing the violation,” he said. “So we can really run after the real bad guys.”
The assistant commissioner added the amendments will also aim to include the Office of the Ombudsman among the policy’s implementing agencies to target top-tier executive officials.
For now, “the (joint memorandum circular) can only run after non presidential appointees,” he pointed out, saying tobacco control is a governance issue as it is a health issue.
“Prosecution is the best deterrence,” Ronquillo added. “There is a rule.”
Asked if the end goal it seeks is to stop tobacco operations, Mendoza said, “That’s the idea.”
The group, in the long term, seeks to “denormalize the tobacco industry,” and given that its products kill people, “it should not be considered a legitimate industry.”
Dorotheo and Ronquillo said it’s not possible to kill the industry at this point, but they agreed it is the ultimate goal.
“The only reason that people are smoking is because they are producing these products that cause addiction and disease,” Dorotheo said.
Ronquillo maintained the policies can only serve as administrative sanctions for public agencies, not the tobacco industry itself.
That is why, Laxamana said, the focus for now is on prevention.
The health official said it is impossible to fully stop the operations of the tobacco companies because several stakeholders, especially local tobacco farmers, will be affected. “That’s the industry, they have to have an income. They have to earn,” she said.
“But we have to help people to become more healthy. So it will come, phase by phase. We cannot really eradicate them but we can help people.”