11 former DOH, DepEd execs urge PH COP10 reps to fight vapes, tobacco

7 February 2024

By Jamil Santos, GMA Integrated News

Eleven former health and education officials have urged the Philippine representatives to the 10th Session of the Conference of the Parties (COP10) of the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) to take a stand against e-cigarettes or vapes amid an increase in use among the Filipino youth.

“We call on the Philippine delegation to COP10 of the WHO FCTC in Panama to affirm our commitments under the FCTC, and take the lead in pushing for, supporting, and promoting policies preventing the uptake of all recreational tobacco and nicotine products, including e-cigarettes, to protect present and future generations from the devastating harms of tobacco use and nicotine addiction,” the joint statement read.

The signatories of the statement were former health department officials Dr. Jaime Galvez Tan (DOH Secretary, 1995), Dr. Carmencita Reodica (DOH Secretary, 1996-1998), Dr. Manuel Dayrit (DOH Secretary, 2001-2005), Dr. Esperanza Cabral (DSWD Secretary 2005-2009 and DOH Secretary 2010), Dr. Paulyn Rosell Ubial (DOH Secretary, 2016-2017), Atty. Alexander Padilla (DOH Undersecretary, 2001-2009), Dr. Susan Mercado (DOH Undersecretary, 1998-2001), Dr. Madeleine Valera (DOH Undersecretary, 2012-2013); and former education department officials Bro. Armin Luistro (DepEd Secretary, 2010-2016), and Atty. Alberto Muyot (Deped Undersecretary, 2010-2016).

In the statement issued Saturday, the former officials said they have warned in the past of the repercussions of the “watered down” provisions of Republic Act 11900 or the Vape Regulation Law, including the lowering age of access from 21 to 18 years old; its delegating of the regulation to the Department of Trade and Industry instead of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA); and easing restrictions for vape flavors.

Enforcement needs improvement

Health Secretary Teodoro Herbosa, who is in Brazil for another meeting on tuberculosis, told GMA News Online that he submitted the DOH position to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) ahead of COP10.

“In it, DOH celebrated a significant decrease in tobacco use among Filipino adults, from 23.8% in 2015 to 19.5% in 2021. We see this as a result mainly of our country’s imposition of higher tobacco excise taxes. There is still room to tax tobacco more and save lives,” said Herbosa, who was originally named as one of the co-heads of the Philippine delegation.

“Several factors continue to affect the progress of WHO FCTC implementation in the Philippines, and the DOH’s legal mandate to control tobacco. The enforcement of existing tobacco control laws and regulations needs improvement, including the imposition of fines for offenses,” he added.

Herbosa said, “advertising of vaporized products targeted at our youth (13-15 years old) has resulted in a more than double increase of ever users in their generation, from 11.7% in 2015 to 24.5% in 2019. This means that the number of minor teenagers who are now using vaporized products, even if they never did smoke or vape before, has increased.”

He added that the cross-border and online sale of all tobacco products continues to target Filipino youth and children, “violating their Constitutional right to health.”

“This practice is also contrary to the objective of the WHO FCTC, which is to “protect present and future generations from the devastating health, social, environmental and economic consequences of tobacco consumption and exposure to tobacco smoke”. Relentless tobacco industry interference at all levels, particularly in policy making and enforcement, remains a significant challenge,” he added.

Vape use among youth

Citing research findings by the Johns Hopkins Institute for Global Tobacco Control, the former officials noted that vapes are “flagrantly and widely sold and advertised” within 100 meters in 78% of Philippine schools, despite a related prohibition in RA 11900.

They also cited the 2019 Global Youth Tobacco Survey showing a growing use of vapes among Filipino teenagers with a 14.1 percent prevalence of vape-use among the youth aged 13-15 (20.9% boys, and 7.5% girls), which translates to millions of young Filipinos.

The former officials also urged Philippine delegates to be “truthful” about supposed weak regulations against vapes, that has become a “serious threat to public health.”

“Transparency and accountability of its policy positions at COP10 should be observed as these will impact domestic and global approaches in tobacco control. The delegation should speak rather than hide, whitewash, or disguise the truth of the serious threat to public health brought about by weak Philippine regulation on e-cigarettes,” the joint statement said.

The COP10, which is being held from Feb. 5 to 10 in Panama, is made up of signatories to the FCTC and is held every two years. It seeks to discuss international tobacco control policies, such as regulations on e-cigarettes or vapes, and its implementation at the national level.

The signatories pointed out that in 2010 and 2021, during the COP4 and COP9 respectively, the Philippine delegation was merited the Dirty Ashtray award following statements inclined to favor the tobacco industry and unnecessary interpellations that obstructed the agenda.

They said their joint statement is aligned with the WHO’s stand on the health dangers of vapes which contain nicotine, a highly addictive chemical, and generate other toxic substances that lead to cancer and increase the risk of heart and lung disease.

Last year, the DOH launched a tobacco cessation contest to encourage smokers and vapers of all ages to quit the vice and win cash prizes.

Intensified monitoring

Sought for comment, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) said it further intensified its monitoring and enforcement operations against offenders of Republic Act 11900 or the Vaporized Nicotine and Non-Nicotine Products Regulation Act.

The DTI reported that it confiscated over 18,000 non-compliant vape products valued at approximately P5.5 million at both physical and online stores.

“Dedicated to protecting consumers, particularly minors, from illegal vape sales, the DTI has so far issued notices of violations (NOVs) and show cause orders (SCOs) to 269 physical stores, mandating them to submit a written explanation within 48 hours from their receipt of SCOs and NOVs. Meanwhile, the Department’s online monitoring unit has inspected over 66,000 online vape stores as of January 2024. Out of the monitored firms, close to 61,000 were issued SCOs,” it said.

To ensure that minors are barred from purchasing vape, the DTI added that it issued NOVs and SCOs to retailers that failed to verify the age of buyers and for selling vape products that are packaged, labeled, presented, or marketed with flavor descriptors that unduly appeal to minors.

The agency said it anticipates the effectivity of the mandatory certification and registration of vape products by June 5, 2024, and enforcement of product standards and product registration by 2025. — VDV/ LDF, GMA Integrated News