Health advocates laud Aquino for tobacco control milestone

Local and international health advocates congratulate President Benigno Aquino III for signing into law Republic Act 10643 or An Act to Effectively Instill Health Consciousness through Graphic Health Warnings on Tobacco Products.

The law comes almost two years after President Aquino, a known smoker, also supported the passage of the sin tax law which increased excise taxes on tobacco products.

“We would like to congratulate the government for passing these two landmark tobacco control laws. What his predecessors failed to do in the past because of a very strong tobacco lobby, President Aquino was able to do within his six-year term as head of the country. This only shows what a genuine political will can achieve,” said Emer Rojas, president of the New Vois Association of the Philippines.

The graphic health warning law requires cigarette makers to put photos of the ill effects of smoking covering half of all packages. The warnings will have 12 versions on rotation every two years.

The measure, a requirement by the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control where the Philippines was a signatory, took seven years and three Congresses before becoming into law hugely because of a very strong tobacco lobby in the legislative branch.

In the case of the sin tax reform, the delay was longer at 16 years.

Dr. Yul Dorotheo, project director, Southeast Asia Initiative on Tobacco Tax at the Southeast Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA) said the Philippines becomes the seventh country in the region to require graphic health warnings. Indonesia passed a similar law in June.

“After the sin tax reform in 2012, the new graphic warnings law is a second hard-fought milestone for Philippine public health,” said Dr. Dorotheo.

Despite the two pro-health measures, Dr. Dorotheo said the work for greater tobacco control in the Philippines must continue as the graphic health warning law did not get to pass without some compromises such as the one-year period of compliance for cigarette makers and the placement of the warnings.

“This is why the work must continue, so that in the future we will have larger warnings bigger than 50% placed on the upper not lower part of cigarette packs,” he said.

The World Health Organization recommends higher taxes and graphic health warnings as the most effective ways in addressing smoking.

Despite its being a non-signatory to the FCTC, Thailand passed a graphic health warning law in 2013 becoming the country with the largest pictorial warning coverage at 85 percent of packet space.

Australia, on the other hand, serves as the world model in tobacco control being a pioneer in plain packaging. Adult smoking prevalence in the country dropped from 25 percent in 1993 to 12.8 percent in 2013 because of consistent tobacco control measures, said Dorotheo.

Rojas said the graphic health warning law is also expected to address the Philippines’ tobacco epidemic where 28 percent of adult Filipinos are smoking and where there is a significant number of youth into the habit.

“The real winner in these landmark legislations is the Filipino people. The young people who will now think twice before lighting up because cigarette prices are slightly higher than before. The current smokers who may consider quitting when they see scary pictures of cancer and other diseases on cigarette packs,” said Rojas.

He however indicated that the law would only be effective if the people will be vigilant to make sure that it is strongly implemented. Rojas warned that the tobacco industry may insist on protecting its business interests by making the law less effective as it sits as a member of the monitoring body tasked to observe the law’s implementation.  #