[OPINION] Tobacco, vape groups are bullying public health advocates in a pandemic

Weeks before the President’s State of the Nation Address (SONA), front groups for the tobacco industry and vape/e-cigarette industry groups have intensified a coordinated smear campaign to weaken tobacco control measures – during a deadly pandemic caused by a virus that, ironically, attacks the lungs.

The smear campaign’s target: public health advocates working in tobacco control. 

Recently, some online news outlets carried similarly-worded stories on how international tobacco control advocates have “influenced” and “meddled” with anti-tobacco policies around the globe, framing such advocates as enemies of the State. A tobacco industry-funded, self-proclaimed “think tank” — the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) — made these allegations based on “leaked” documents, and is seemingly framing the issue as an “exposé.”

The “exposé?” That these international public health organizations are helping low- to middle-income countries pursue life-saving policies that prevent tobacco-related deaths! That they are supporting local efforts to push for a smoke-free environment! That they are supporting measures for higher tobacco taxes! That they are taking advantage of a political environment supportive of stricter vape regulations! In a pandemic! (Oh, the horror.)

There is nothing worth “exposing” about these supposed “leaked” documents or information, since these have always been public, and are part of the Philippines’ national laws and policies to combat tobacco use.

Make no mistake — this “exposé” is part of a coordinated public relations (PR) strategy by the tobacco industry and its front groups to intimidate local public health advocates into silence. The tactic is to discredit international and local tobacco control advocates to create a political environment that is friendly to the tobacco industry. 

A legitimate, actual leaked document secured by Reuters’ investigative team confirms this: in 2014, it was part of Philip Morris International’s (PMI) strategy to “achieve scrutiny on anti-tobacco organizations (ATOs),” saying that PMI needs to “do a better job tracking, responding, and challenging ATOs when appropriate.” In their own words, their aim is to shape public opinion by finding the “right spin” and effectively using consultants like “door-openers” and “spin doctors.” More files are available over at Reuters’ Philip Morris Files microsite.

For decades, it is the industry and its front groups (like the CEI) that have lied, deceived, and manipulated the public and policymakers in order to advance their own commercial interests, instead of saving lives.

The tobacco industry vs public health advocates

The push for a tobacco-friendly political environment is apparent in a recent hearing conducted by lawmakers on the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) receipt of a small grant from an international tobacco control organization. In that hearing, one lawmaker went as far as to suggest that policymakers should not listen to civil society organizations (CSOs) because, unlike tobacco companies, these CSOs have “not given anything” to the government. 

In contrast, tobacco companies have given numerous donations to local governments, amid a history of using corporate social responsibility (CSR) to interfere with policymaking.

In making CSOs and tobacco control advocates look bad, and the tobacco industry look good, the ultimate goal is to exclude local and international tobacco control advocates from public health policymaking. 

This should raise the alarm for all public health advocates, and not only those working in tobacco control. International, regional, and domestic cooperation are essential aspects of any advocacy, as evidenced, among others, by the Philippines’ ratification of the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) in 2005. 

Many of our best tobacco control laws and policies are due to earnest efforts of public health advocates (including volunteers) to implement this agreement, with help from multiple sectors of society — the international community included. In fact, the WHO FCTC’s Guiding Principles provide specifically that the participation of civil society is essential in achieving its objectives, recognizing the “special contribution of NGOs and other members of civil society not affiliated with the tobacco industry…in national and international tobacco control efforts.” 

If the outcomes of international support and cooperation are better smoke-free laws to prevent deaths from secondhand smoke, higher tobacco taxes for universal health care, and stricter regulations on vapes and e-cigarettes to protect children, is this “meddling” or “interfering” with national policy? 

Or are they merely doing this to help implement our very own Constitution — by upholding the right of Filipinos to health (Art. II, Sec. 15), and by helping the State protect citizens from the harms caused by hazardous products (Art. XVI, Sec. 9)? 

And aren’t local public health CSOs merely exercising the Constitutional right of civil society to participate in policymaking (Art. XIII, Sec. 16)?

Here’s something the tobacco industry cannot spin: 100 million people died in the 20th century by using the tobacco industry’s products as intended, and, without well-meaning tobacco control advocates that continue to raise the alarm despite the tobacco industry’s political machinations, 1 billion more will die in the 21st. The more important question, therefore, is with whom should the government stand?

The tobacco industry: Neither friend nor ally

Even amid a pandemic, it is often forgotten that the tobacco industry, with the help of its front groups, facilitated the tobacco epidemic — simply by continuing to sell cigarettes and marketing fraudulently and aggressively to the public. Tobacco-related diseases cause 117,700 deaths every year in the Philippines. At least P256 billion in socioeconomic costs annually are also attributable to these diseases, money we can otherwise spend for COVID-19 response. Smoking itself is linked to severe outcomes for COVID-19 yet some lawmakers seem more concerned about public health advocates advocating for public health. 

Meanwhile, in the US, a vaping epidemic was previously declared, and in the Philippines, there’s already a name for the disease linked to vape and e-cigarette use: EVALI (e-cigarette and vape-associated lung injury). 

Now, tobacco companies are actual stakeholders in the vape and e-cigarette industry. A tobacco company, Altria (owner of Marlboro) has invested in the popular e-cigarette brand, Juul, that was recently fined $40 million for fueling a vaping epidemic among children. PMI, which owns the heated tobacco product IQOS, also recently suspended its global social media marketing campaign after an exposé revealed its use of young online personalities to sell the IQOS.

Which begs the question: are we exhausting all efforts to stop another epidemic that may rival the tobacco epidemic? 

Let’s remember: the tobacco industry has never been an ally nor friend in safeguarding Filipinos’ health. The tobacco industry has killed enough people for us to know this. Government should be vigilant of underhanded efforts of tobacco industry front groups, as well as vape/e-cigarette industry groups, to reverse life-saving policies amid a public health crisis. 

As we continue to face a public health crisis, let’s be clear about our priorities: health over profit. Kalusugan bago kita! – Rappler.com

Anna Bueno is a lawyer and a policy associate for ImagineLaw, a public interest law firm advocating for healthy and meaningful lives.