PH gets 5th ‘Dirty Ashtray’ in tobacco control convention

12 February 2024

By, Dexter Cabalza, Inquirer

MANILA, Philippines — An international civil society watchdog awarded the notorious “Dirty Ashtray” award to the Philippine delegation for its statements inclined to favor the tobacco industry and interpellations that obstructed the agenda of the 10th Conference of Parties (COP10) to the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC).

The award, given by the Global Alliance for Tobacco Control (GATC), is a public-shaming tool to call out countries influenced by lobbying from the tobacco industry, especially when their public officials or governments accept, support or endorse policies or legislation in collaboration with cigarette manufacturers.

Senior Deputy Executive Secretary Hubert Guevara of the Office of the President led the biggest government delegation at COP10 in Panama City held from Feb. 5 to Feb. 10.

The delegation had more than 30 officials and staff from different agencies such as the Presidential Legislative Liaison Office, National Tobacco Administration, Department of Agriculture, Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), Department of Foreign Affairs, Department of Education (DepEd), Department of Health (DOH), and local government, as well as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The Philippine delegation opened with what it claimed was the “notable progress” in implementing the WHO FCTC—a global health treaty ratified by 183 parties to address the global tobacco epidemic and uphold the people’s right to the highest standard of health—as Guevara highlighted the result of the Global Adult Tobacco Survey, reporting a significant decrease in tobacco use from 23.8 percent in 2015 to 19.5 percent in 2021.

Guevara also noted the enactment of RA 11900, which he said “safeguards minors by restricting the sale, including online trade, distribution and marketing of these products and prohibits tobacco product-related activities within a hundred meters of schools, playgrounds and facilities frequented by minors.”

‘Harm initiation’

However, the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (Seatca) and former health and education officials noted that the drop in smoking prevalence in the country was “a result of sin tax law reforms beginning in 2012” and not RA 11900.

Health advocates also criticized the law as it made e-cigarettes or vapes, and heated tobacco products more accessible to the youth by lowering the age of access from 21 to 18 years old.

It also transferred the regulation of these tobacco products from the “pro-health” FDA, an agency under the DOH, to the “pro-tobacco” DTI.

“The [Philippine] delegation failed to share that the latest Global Youth Tobacco Survey [in 2019] showed that 14 percent of Filipino adolescents aged 13 to 15 years currently use e-cigarettes, while 24.6 percent had used e-cigarettes, more than double the percentage in 2015. The increasing uptake of e-cigarettes among young people is a worrying global trend,” Seatca said.

“The tobacco industry aggressively promotes its newer nicotine products to youths and nonsmokers with thousands of false but attention-grabbing messages on social media, more than 15,000 fruity and fun flavors, and many appealing e-cigarette forms, including toys, confectionery, and school supplies. This is classic harm initiation and not harm reduction,” it added.

Health Secretary Teodoro Herbosa, who was part of the delegation, has been calling for tighter regulations on tobacco and vape products, but his position was not carried by the Filipino delegation.

After almost three days of deliberations, the parties at COP10 also failed to achieve a consensus to establish an expert group to facilitate the implementation of Articles 9 and 10 of the FCTC on the regulation and disclosure of the contents and emissions of tobacco products, with the Philippines joining a minority of parties blocking the consensus.

The Philippines proposed a “compromise” option that further muddled the discussion and caused more delay, according to Seatca.

With no more time left to continue deliberations, this agenda item was deferred to COP11 in 2025.

‘Causing confusion’

“As a Filipino, I am ashamed that the Philippines was given its fifth Dirty Ashtray. I expect government officials participating in a global health treaty conference to promote public health interests, but the Philippine delegation demonstrated to the world that it is a willing mouthpiece of a harmful and duplicitous industry,” Seatca executive director Ulysses Dorotheo said in a statement on Sunday.

Former officials of the DOH were also not happy with the back-to-back Dirty Ashtray awards received by the country.

“It is every government’s mandate to protect the right of its population to utmost health and well-being. I hope that our delegates at the COP10 will take this dishonor as a wake-up call that they must stand for public health rather than the vested interests of the tobacco industry,” former Health Secretary Esperanza Cabral said.

“[It was] our chance to demonstrate our commitment, as a party that has ratified it, that we support the achievement of the convention’s goals. It is alarming to note that we have a Dirty Ashtray award, as we should be contributing constructively to discussions on the floor rather than causing confusion or delay,” said Alexander Padilla, a former health undersecretary.

Both Cabral and Padilla were among the 11 senior officials of the DOH and DepEd who earlier called on the Philippine delegation to the high-level talks on tobacco control to stand against electronic cigarettes and vape products, citing the alarming increase in their use among Filipino youth. But their warning seemingly fell on deaf ears.

The Philippines received its first Dirty Ashtray at COP4 in 2010 but was eventually redeemed by an Orchid Award at COP5 in 2012 when it excluded tobacco industry representatives from its delegation.

At COP9 in 2021, the Philippines was given three Dirty Ashtray awards from the GATC (formerly the Framework Convention Alliance), a coalition of more than 300 organizations from 100 countries for tobacco control.
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