Tobacco firms’ influence over PH gov’t among highest in SEA

Judith Balea
In most of the 7 countries surveyed, governments receive contributions from the tobacco industry or endorse the firms' CSR activities

MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines is among the countries in Southeast Asia where tobacco companies enjoy the most undue and unregulated influence over policies affecting their industry.

With a score of 71, the Philippines ranks 3rd in the first-ever Tobacco Industry Interference Index released by the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (Seatca).

The Philippines follows Indonesia (78) and Malaysia (72). Following the Philippines are Cambodia (68), Lao PDR (61), Thailand (51) and Brunei (29).

This indicates that the Philippine government is failing to effectively implement a global treaty on tobacco control that it signed in 2003.

The index is the first attempt at grading countries in their implementation of Article 5.3 of the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which seeks to limit interference by tobacco industry in the setting and implementation of health policies by governments around the globe. It ranks the countries based on the level of industry interference, from highest to lowest.

“How does the tobacco industry interfere? They have different tactics…. They maneuver to hijack political and legislative processes, they water down [legislations] to make them less compliant with tobacco control measures. They exaggerate the economic benefits of tobacco…. They manipulate public opinion, they carry out corporate social responsibility (CSR),” said Carmen Audera-Lopez, technical officer at WHO, at the launch of the Seatca report on Monday, February 3.

Tobacco control is particularly needed in Southeast Asia, where 3 of the world’s top 5 cigarette manufacturers dominate markets, said Mary Assunta, senior policy advisor of Seatca.

The region is home to about 127 million smokers or 10% of the world’s tobacco consumers. It sees about 400,000 tobacco-related deaths per year – all preventable.

“The industry will not stop its disruption of government efforts to promote public health through tobacco control,” said Assunta. “This index shines a light on where the interferences are.”

Unnecessary interactions, CSR

There were 7 categories, with a total of 20 indicators, that were used to measure tobacco industry’s interference in government policy making. These categories are:

  • Level of participation in policy development
  • CSR activities
  • Benefits awarded to tobacco industry
  • Forms of unnecessary interaction
  • Transparency
  • Conflicts of interest
  • Preventive measures

The report found that:

  • Countries with high levels of unnecessary interaction with the tobacco industry have high levels of industry participation in policy development.
  • There is no system that prohibits the industry from making contributions to political parties, and governments do not require full disclosure of such.
  • Most governments receive tobacco industry contributions or endorse industry CSR activities.
  • Most governments accept assistance from the industry in implementing tobacco control policies.

In the Philippines, Assunta said a representative of the tobacco industry sits in the inter-agency regulator created under Republic Act 9211 or the Tobacco Regulation Act of 2003.

There is high level of unnecessary government interactions with the industry, as well as participation of the industry in policy making. Such was observed during the crafting of the Sin Tax Reform Law of 2013 that was watered down from the original objectives of its proponents. (READ: Higher cigarette taxes: A promise compromised?)

Assunta also cited CSR activities of tobacco companies in partnership with government agencies and local government units. Philip Morris, for instance, has been spending at least $1 million for CSR in the Philippines since 2008. (READ: Tobacco CSR thwarts ad ban, no-smoking laws)

“We are alerting countries that they need to step up their efforts, disclose all interactions with the industry, exercise transparency, stop receiving industry contributions and ban their CSR activities,” she stressed.

No law banning CSR

There is no law specifically banning CSR activities of tobacco companies in the Philippines.

What the country has are policies, issued by the executive branch, prohibiting government from being involved in such undertakings. (READ: Loophole? No PH law banning tobacco CSR)

Article 5.3 of FCTC states that “in setting and implementing their public health policies with regards to tobacco control, parties shall act to protect these policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry in accordance with national law.”

There have also been recommendations from the 3rd Conference of the Parties of the FCTC for public officials to “denormalize, and to the extent possible, regulate activities described as ‘socially responsible’ by the tobacco industry.”

In line with this recommendation, the Civil Service Commission and the Department of Health issued a joint memorandum in 2010 prohibiting government officials from interacting with the tobacco industry except when strictly necessary for the latter’s regulation.

It also bars them from soliciting, accepting, “directly or indirectly, any gift, gratuity favor, entertainment, loan or anything of monetary value in the course of their official duties or in connection with the operation being regulated by, or any transaction which may be affected by the functions of their office from any person or business related to the tobacco industry.”

The memo specifically deals with activities branded as “socially responsible,” requiring officials to report any information on any interaction with and offer of donation from the tobacco industry.

The memo is a “pioneer in the world,” according to health advocates. But while the Philippines is ahead in this effort, its fight against tobacco interference “still has a long way to go,” admitted CSC Assistant Commissioner Ariel Ronquillo.

“We have yet to record a single complaint for violations of this joint memorandum circular despite the fact there were reported interactions between government agencies and tobacco companies,” he said.

“The government cannot do it alone. We need active participation of private citizens. If you’ve noticed any violations, please report it to us so we can take action. Collectively, we can implement Article 5.3. In the end, the right to health is everybody’s responsibility,” he concluded. – Rappler.com