IN THE MIDDLE of the unprecedented crisis engulfing both houses of Congress arising from the pork barrel scam, a bill overshadowed by bigger issues was passed. This bill is about the graphic health warning on cigarettes. The Senate and the House of Representatives have ratified the bicameral conference committee bill (which reconciles the versions of both chambers) titled The Graphic Health Warning Law (GHWL). It now awaits the President’s signature for enactment.

The law’s main feature is the placement of a repulsive graphic health warning that covers 50% of both sides of the cigarette pack. The graphic warning is to be placed at the lower half portion of the cigarette pack, which makes tobacco-control militants unhappy. They argue that an image on the bottom half of the pack is not visible when the pack is displayed in store shelves.

Responsible for the law’s implementation are the Department of Health and the Department of Trade and Industry. The tobacco-control militants are suspicious of the role of Trade and Industry. They suspect that the agency is captured by the tobacco industry.

Nonetheless, the GHWL meets the standard of the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). The FCTC’s regulatory goal is to reduce both cigarette demand and supply. To address demand reduction, the FCTC employs price as well as non-price measures.

In end-2012, the Philippines passed a bold and disruptive sin tax law, which has gained international attention and, more importantly, led to health and economic gains.

On the demand side, the tax measure is supplemented by non-price interventions like the ban on tobacco advertisement, the protection from second-hand smoke, and graphic health warning, among other things.

On the supply side, the measures employed include combatting illicit trade, restricting sales to the youth, and promoting alternative livelihood to tobacco farmers. The sin tax law actually addresses these supply issues.

Some observers and even the supporters of graphic health warnings are amazed with the speed of the bill’s passage. The measure has advanced way ahead of more important, if not urgent measures. Congress is still processing priority bills like the rationalization of fiscal incentives, mineral taxation, and modernization of the Bureau of Customs; or the bills endorsed by both government and civil society like the competition policy and freedom of information.

Further, consider the hurdles: Congress is almost in a state of paralysis as a result of the crisis triggered by the pork barrel scam. The chairman of the health committee in the lower house — the bill first has to pass at the committee — is associated with the pro-tobacco bloc. He could have killed the bill at the committee level. And the bill is not even among the administration’s priority legislative measures.

Truth to tell, the GHWL was predetermined during the height of the intense and exhausting battle for the sin tax law. The passage of the graphic health warning was built on the sin tax victory.

Here, we recognize the role of Senate President Frank Drilon. He made a commitment to the core of the civil society coalition that spearheaded the sin tax campaign that he, together with Senator Pia Cayetano, would do everything possible to pass the bill on graphic health warning.

The Senate President has a very personal reason in actively supporting tobacco control. It is not just about his grasp of the rational argument that non-price measures supplement the disruptive tobacco tax reforms. His first wife, Violeta, died prematurely, a victim of a smoking-associated disease.

Also, the pro-tobacco lobby provoked him. The pro-tobacco operators, those from the dominant company, called him names, insulted him, and moved to undermine his leadership in the Senate.

The seasoned and astute politician that he is, Sen. Drilon cautioned the civil society coalition on the sin tax to exercise political pragmatism and temper expectations. He said that, based on the prevailing objective conditions, having a GHWL that meets the minimum necessary features to comply with the FCTC was the realistic option.

Here is the relevant passage on graphic health warning found in Article 11 of the FCTC regarding packaging labeling of tobacco products:

“Each unit packet and package of tobacco products and any outside packaging and labeling of such products also carry health warnings describing the harmful effects of tobacco use, and may include other appropriate messages. These warnings and messages… shall be rotating, shall be large, clear, visible and legible, should be 50% or more of the display areas but shall be no less than 30% of the principal display areas, may be in the form of or include pictures or pictograms.”

Pro-tobacco resistance to the bill was neutralized when one segment, the British-American Tobacco (BAT), expressed its position to the Senate that it had no objection to the graphic health warning. Fearing political isolation, the other tobacco firms took the cue from BAT. This gave Sen. Cayetano the opening to find a compromise that is consistent with the FCTC. The Senate settled for a compromise where the graphic warning covers 50% of both sides of the cigarette pack. The Senate version, in the main, prevailed in the reconciliation of the bills in the bicameral conference committee.

Senate President Drilon used moral suasion to persuade the House of Representatives to ready its counterpart version. Early passage in the Senate compelled House Speaker Sonny Belmonte to press his members to follow the Senate example, even if the lower chamber’s version was a lame one.

A more radical bill was unlikely — for example, a graphic warning covering 60% of the pack. It would have met fierce resistance from the whole tobacco industry and that in turn would have stalled the bill, especially in the Lower House.

The government also wanted to avoid a long and exhausting legal challenge if the industry sued. Government confronts bigger issues — the pork barrel scam, the passage of the Bangsamoro Act and other legislative reforms. It cannot afford to fight too many battles.

On the other hand, it is in the interest of Congress to pick the low-lying fruits. Passing a moderate piece of legislation is in the interest of Congress to protect its reputation in the face of the damage brought about by the pork barrel plunder.

On the part of the tobacco industry, it thinks it can live with a moderate measure. After all, the impact of a graphic health warning is less when, as a recent Social Weather Stations survey shows, two-thirds of Filipino smokers buy cigarettes by the stick.

Filomeno S. Sta. Ana III coordinates Action for Economic Reform,