Public health or tobacco farmers

Public health or tobacco farmers

/ 04:35 AM February 26, 2024

The Philippines has been reaping distinctions in recent years that are an embarrassment to Filipinos. It has been labeled as having the worst airport and traffic, branded as the texting capital of the world as if it is a good thing, and only this month was bestowed the so-called “dirty ashtray” award for caving into lobbying by the tobacco industry. The international civil society watchdog Global Alliance for Tobacco Control (GATC) handed the notorious award to the Philippine delegation to the 10th meeting of signatories to the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) in Panama City early this month. The fifth so far given to the Philippines, it is a public-shaming tool to call out countries influenced by big tobacco players, especially when their governments accept, support, or endorse policies or legislation influenced by cigarette manufacturers.

Welfare of tobacco farmers

At the Senate blue ribbon committee hearing, senior deputy executive secretary Hubert Guevara, head of the Philippine delegation, explained that the award may have been given to the Philippine delegation for statements and interjections that supposedly delayed the agenda of the conference. He justified this by pointing out that they stood on the government’s “balanced policy approach,” raising concern not only about health but also the welfare of tobacco farmers.

“But if by protecting our state policy, the 30,000 or more families whose lives were dependent on tobacco farming and the rest of our countrymen who are able to avail [themselves of] the benefits of our health-care system funded by the excise taxes on tobacco, we are given the Dirty Ashtray Award, then I am willing to own it up as a head of delegation,” he said.


Crux of the problem

This is the crux of the problem. The government cannot ensure the health of the population and at the same time protect the sector that is harming it. It has to choose one over the other. Globally, many governments have chosen the promotion of their people’s health over the protection of the tobacco industry since the anti-smoking movement gained momentum in the 1970s. As a result, many developed countries tightened the noose on cigarette manufacturers by slapping high taxes to make their products inaccessible to as many people as possible. The result was that tobacco companies looked elsewhere for new markets, and developing nations with weak anti-smoking controls such as the Philippines were the natural targets.


The campaign against smoking in the Philippines started to catch up only in the 2000s, culminating in the so-called “sin tax” law reforms in 2012 that raised imposts on products such as cigarettes and alcohol. As a result, the Global Adult Tobacco Survey showed a significant decrease in tobacco use in the Philippines to 19.5 percent in 2021 from 23.8 percent in 2015.

E-cigarettes and vaping

The inevitable decline in tobacco use, however, spawned a much bigger problem. When cigarettes became too costly, enter the so-called alternatives such as e-cigarettes and vaping and heated tobacco products that were cheaper and more accessible even to the youth. To counter this, the government enacted Republic Act No. 11900, the law which aims to regulate the “importation, sale, packaging, distribution, use, and communication of vaporized nicotine and non-nicotine products and novel tobacco products.”

However, health advocates criticized the legislation as it made cigarette alternatives more accessible to the youth when it lowered the age of access from 21 to 18 years old, and transferred the regulation of these products from the “pro-health” Food and Drug Administration (FDA), an agency under the Department of Health, to the “pro-tobacco” Department of Trade and Industry (DTI).

Wake-up call

As proof, the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (Seatca) cited the latest Global Youth Tobacco Survey in 2019 showing that 14 percent of Filipino adolescents aged 13 to 15 years use e-cigarettes, while 24.6 percent had used e-cigarettes, or more than double the percentage in 2015.

The government and tobacco farmers should have seen it coming. Ever since the anti-smoking campaign began several decades ago, the future of the tobacco industry has obviously gone downhill from there. Any forward-looking government or businessman should have planned for a future with diminished tobacco usage. While it will take years, the government must now redirect tobacco farmers to plant other crops or undertake other business ventures.

The FDA, meanwhile, should be on board with the regulation of vaping and other so-called cigarette alternatives. The DTI and the local governments must strictly implement the prohibition against tobacco advertising that lures the youth, the sale of these cigarette alternatives in places near schools, and the access of people below 18 years of age.


As former health secretary Esperanza Cabral pointed out, the “dirty ashtray” award should serve as a wake-up call for the government to “stand for public health rather than the vested interests of the tobacco industry.”

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TAGS: farmers, opinion, tobacco, tobacco industry

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