[OPINION] Filipinos’ health in jeopardy as Vape Bill lapses into law

2 August 2022

By Dr Ulysses Dorotheo, Rappler

‘This new law is even more backward’

On July 26, Senate Bill No. 2239 and House Bill No. 9006, popularly known as the “Vape Bill,” lapsed into law. This bill had been repeatedly criticized by leading professional medical societiesformer Secretaries of Healthnational government agencies, and civil society organizations, which called for its veto for undoing protections in existing laws. 

A retrogressive bill in more ways than one

Clearly recognizing the harms of electronic smoking devices (ESDs), such as e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products, Congress introduced specific language in Republic Act Nos. 11346 and 11467 to safeguard public health from these harmful products: (1) prohibiting sales to non-smokers and anyone below 21 years old, (2) limiting flavors to only plain tobacco and plain menthol, (3) requiring 12 graphic health warning templates similar to those required for other tobacco products under Republic Act No. 10643, and (4) keeping these products under the science-based regulatory purview of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). All these public health protections will now be undone by the new measure, which is now known as the Vaporized Nicotine and Non-Nicotine Products Regulation Act (Republic Act No. 11900). This new law is even more backward as it is clear that vaping or smoking can worsen symptoms of COVID-19, which local authorities estimate will cost the country around $740 billion over the next 10 years.

Recruiting a new generation of nicotine addicts

This rollback in policy shifts the public health paradigm from a proactive approach, based on the precautionary principle, to one that is industry-driven. This approach, touted as innovative and respectful of choice, promotes newer nicotine and tobacco products as smoking cessation devices (despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary) and opens the floodgates for youth consumption and subsequent recruitment into nicotine addiction. This has been clearly and publicly demonstrated by the teen vaping epidemic in the United States. According to the Global Youth Tobacco Survey, adolescent (13-15 years) smoking prevalence in the Philippines is already quite high at 10%. Compounding this problem, 14% of adolescents use ESDs, with a high of 21% among teenage boys. Parents Against Vape in the Philippines had raised concerns that the bill will lead to easier youth access to these products.

These fears are fueled by the fact that the new law now lowers the minimum age of access to 18 years old, allows online marketing and sales of e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products in order to make them as widely available as possible, and allows many more flavors in addition to tobacco and menthol. Filipino youths are constantly online and will be exposed to attractive tobacco and e-cigarette advertisements, and despite claimed safeguards to prevent underage sales, online platforms in the Philippines are known to have simple and ineffective “click to proceed” age verification systems that instantly allow the purchase of tobacco and nicotine products. According to a Philippine Pediatric Society survey, the top two reasons for using vape among youths are online accessibility (32%) and varied flavors (22%).

Not a health measure

While the Vape Bill proponents insist that these electronic smoking devices are consumer products to be regulated by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), the DTI is not mandated to regulate health products; this is given by the Philippine Constitution to the Department of Health (DOH). In fact, during congressional hearings on the Vape Bill, the DTI said that it could only regulate the electronic devices and not the liquids and other ingredients to be consumed, which it said should be regulated by the DOH and FDA.

The FDA has maintained that this new law is “not a health measure” and highlighted the fact that the tobacco-friendly DTI’s jurisdiction over consumer products under the Consumer Act of the Philippines (Republic Act No. 7394) does not include health hazardous products. Based on this consumer law, the constitutional mandate of the DOH to protect every person’s health, and a recent Supreme Court decision affirming the FDA’s authority, all products affecting health, including tobacco and its related products, were meant to have been under the regulatory purview of the FDA. 

The FDA and DOH position that this new law is contrary to public health is strongly supported by the overwhelming majority of the Philippine medical and scientific community, composed of 59 medical societies and health professional organizations led by the Philippine Medical Association, as well as over 70 civil society organizations.

In addition, this new law clearly goes against binding international commitment to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which requires policies for preventing and reducing tobacco consumption, nicotine addiction, and exposure to tobacco smoke. 

Tobacco industry interference and influence to undermine public health 

The Vape Bill was approved by both houses of the 18th Congress in January 2022, but it was transmitted to the Office of the President only on June 24, five months after its approval and five calendar days before then outgoing president Rodrigo Duterte was to step down from office. This and the pro-industry provisions in the measure roused a senator’s suspicion that the delay may have been engineered to avert scrutiny by then president Duterte, who was known for his anti-smoking and anti-vaping stance and had issued Executive Order No.26 on the nationwide smoking ban and Executive Order No. 106 preventing the manufacture, sale, and distribution of e-cigarettes that do not comply with FDA requirements. 

This new law serves only to further the commercial and vested interests of the tobacco industry and undermines the country’s pro-health policy direction of the last 10 years. This new law will victimize children and youths, delivering a new generation of nicotine addicts to the industry on a silver platter. – Rappler.com

Dr. Ulysses Dorotheo is an internationally renowned Filipino tobacco control advocate with 25+ years of experience in patient care, education, and advocacy. Currently, Dr. Yul is the Executive Director of the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA) and a member of the WHO Civil Society Working Group on Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) and the World Heart Federation Tobacco Experts Group.