The Tobacco Industry Unmasked

Dr. Dorotheo is a public health advocate with 10 years of experience in tobacco control, including participation in the development of the WHO FCTC and meetings of the Conference of Parties to the treaty. He is currently the project director for the Southeast Asia Initiative on Tobacco Tax of the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA). He may be contacted at ulysses@seatca.org.

This piece was published in the November 15, 2010 edition of the BusinessWorld, pages S1/4 to S1/5.

In dealing with tobacco and its health, social, economic, and environmental harms, governments should be guided by the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. This is an evidence-based treaty that reaffirms the right of all people to the highest standard of health. It is a response to the globalization of the tobacco epidemic, which claims 5.4 million lives each year. One hundred seventy one countries (including the Philippines) ratified the treaty in 2005, and is thus now part of the law of the land (superseding the Tobacco Regulation Act of 2003 (Republic Act 9211)). Under this treaty, the Philippines committed to a range of measures to curb tobacco use.

Recently, the Philippine Aromatic Tobacco Development Association, Inc. (PATDA) wrote President Aquino, with an attached petition from the very newly formed PhilTobacco Growers Association Inc (PTGA). Such letter would have readers incorrectly believe that our tobacco farmers and the Philippine tobacco industry will be “obliterated” by the government’s fulfillment of its obligations under the WHO FCTC, particularly at the coming fourth session of Conference of the Parties (COP4) in Uruguay from 15-20 November 2010. Philip Morris and the Philippine Tobacco Institute also support this myth.

The tobacco industry prides itself in paying approximately PhP 25 to 30 billion in excise taxes. But such taxes are low, and such revenues have been eroded by inflation and other weaknesses in the current sin tax law.

Yearly, tobacco-related diseases claim at least 90,000 Filipino lives and cost our country PhP 281 to 461 billion pesos in health care expenditures and productivity losses. Reducing these significant losses requires principled and unwavering political leadership from the Aquino administration. We offer these facts in response to some of the misinformation being spread by the tobacco industry.

1. Contrary to PATDA and PTGA claims, the WHO FCTC has the welfare of tobacco farmers and workers in mind. Under Articles 17 and 18, the treaty requires Parties to promote economically viable alternative livelihoods for farmers and workers and to protect the environment and the health of persons in tobacco cultivation and manufacture. The Article 17 and 18 technical working group, which includes tobacco-growing countries, was mandated to prepare a report on these matters; this progress report will be considered at COP4.

2. The COP4 agenda includes the adoption of draft Guidelines to assist Parties in implementing Articles 9 and 10 of the WHO FCTC (Regulation of Contents of Tobacco Products and Tobacco Product Disclosures). The PATDA letter misleads when it says the proposed draft Guidelines include a “ban on all kinds of ingredients in the manufacture of cigarettes…” The guidelines recommend that Parties “prohibit or restrict” ingredients, such as candy or fruit flavors, that help make tobacco products attractive and encourage their use, especially among young people. The draft Guidelines are not explicit on the kind of prohibition or restriction that the Parties may apply on tobacco product ingredients. They are recommendatory, and each Party has flexibility on which tobacco product ingredients to prohibit or restrict, taking into account the national situation and other appropriate circumstances.

3. PTGA claims there is a need to protect the livelihood of more than 2.7 million tobacco farmers and their families (PATDA refers to “millions” of Filipino farmers). While tobacco control advocates fight to protect the health of 92 billion Filipinos, we also champion the tobacco farmers’ welfare, in contrast to exploitation by tobacco leaf traders and tobacco companies. Thus we urge President Aquino to order a review of RA 7171 (An Act to Promote the Development of the Farmers in the Virginia Tobacco-Producing Provinces) to see if this law has truly improved the lives of our tobacco farmers in Region I. Or if it has only benefited the region’s politicians who receive 15% of the tobacco excise tax. For example, according to the Commission on Audit, the Ilocos Sur tobacco excise tax share under RA 7171 funded several highly questionable projects costing over 1.3 billion pesos. Even without tobacco control, our tobacco farmers are already destitute. Let us learn from countries that are dependent on tobacco growing for foreign exchange, such as Malawi and Zimbabwe (who are not Parties to the FCTC); they have remained poor and continue to suffer economic woes.

According to the National Tobacco Administration, there were 43,500 tobacco farmers in 2009. At an average of five members per household, the number of tobacco farmers and their families would thus total 217,500. Since modern cigarette manufacturing is almost completely mechanized, we imagine that the few million claimed to be tobacco industry workers belong to the marketing, distribution, and retail sectors, and hence are not solely dependent on the industry for their livelihood. Where are the “millions” claimed by PATDA and PTGA?

4. While it may be good to protect the stakeholders of most industries, the tobacco industry is unlike any another. It makes and sells a product that kills half of all its regular users; causes widespread human addiction, disease, and disability; poisons and destroys the environment; and negatively impacts families and national economies. Therefore it is ridiculous and illogical for PATDA to request that the delegation to COP4 be composed of representatives who will protect the industry’s interests. Among others, such action would violate Article 5.3 of the treaty, which requires Parties to protect its public health policies from commercial and other vested interests of the industry.

We therefore appeal to President Aquino to protect all Filipinos from the many health, social, economic, and environmental harms of tobacco use and the interference of the tobacco industry.

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