Tobacco Firms Call for stop to picture health warnings, 03/06/10

An order requiring tobacco companies to print graphic health warnings on cigarette packs is contrary to law, the Philippine Tobacco Institute (PTI) said on Thursday.

Complying with the health department’s administrative order will be a violation of the Tobacco Regulation Act (TRA) of 2003, the group said in a statement.

The law prohibits the printing of any other health warning on cigarette packs other than those specified by law, the group said.

Under Section 13 (g) of the law, “no other printed warnings, except the health warning and the message required (by the law) shall be placed on cigarette packages.”

“If AO 2010-13 [on the picture warnings] is implemented, cigarette manufacturers, exporters, and importers will be violating the TRA, which has penal provisions that could land them in jail and be meted heavy fines,” said the group, which includes Philip Morris-Fortune Tobacco Corp., the Philippines’ largest cigarette firm.

As a result, the PTI called on Health Secretary Esperanza Cabral to withdraw the said order, saying it is “defective” and “deplorable.”

Cabral and other health officials counter that the Philippines is one of the 168 signatories of the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which requires parties to the convention to “implement large, rotating health warnings on all tobacco product packaging and labelling.”

At least 38 countries and territories — including neighboring countries Thailand and Singapore — have already implemented the printing of picture-based warnings of cigarette packs, while 27 other member-states of the European Union has also recommended its implementation.

A powerful lobby in the Philippines, with cigarette magnate Lucio Tan a major donor to political campaigns, the tobacco industry has decided to fight back. “Secretary Cabral has wrought much confusion in taxation and regulation in the last days of this administration… We call on Secretary Cabral to immediately withdraw her defective administrative order and not embarrass her president any further,” the PTI said in its statement.

The PTI is a group of local cigarette manufacturers which include the Philippines’ biggest tobacco firm, Lucio Tan’s Philip Morris-Fortune Tobacco Corporation, and other corporations like the Anglo-American Tobacco Corporation, La Suerte Cigar and Cigarette Manufacturing Inc., and Mighty Tobacco Corporation.

The FTI likewise accused Cabral of “arrogantly flaunting her powers” by issuing the order and by-passing Congress, which the group said should be issuing legislation regarding these graphic warnings.

“Congress did not pass such a law, after long consultations with all stakeholders, so Secretary Cabral usurped legislative powers and issued her own diktat. This arrogant flaunting of the law and arrogation of powers not hers to exercise should be condemned by all law-abiding citizens of this country,” the group said.

Cabral issued last week an administrative order requiring the printing of graphic warnings on the bad effects of tobacco smoking on cigarette packs, saying it was in accordance with an international treaty ratified by the Philippines back in 2005.

Comply or find alternative industry, Cabral says

However, Cabral remained firm about implementing the administrative order this month, saying tobacco companies can easily alter product packaging since they provide similar packages to other countries.

“These tobacco manufacturers are the ones who print and export packages with graphic warnings to other Asian countries. They can very well comply with the order,” she said in a phone interview with GMANews.TV.

The health department has given tobacco companies enough time to change their current packages and even invited them to a dialogue before the order was released, she said.

“We invited them, but nobody came except for one person,” she said.

The health secretary also said her administrative order does not violate any law, since RA 9211 only covers textual warnings.

“We consulted our legal experts here, and they said the order is well within the law. What we want now are graphic warnings, not textual ones,” she said.

Cabral likewise said that she expected strong opposition from tobacco firms after she released the order, but withdrawing her directive is not an option.

“In other countries, this order has also been met with opposition. Tobacco companies kept threatening to sue. It really depends on the political will,” she said.

“Natatakot ako, pero trabaho ko ito. Kung matatakot ako at hindi na magtatrabaho, I might as well resign,” she added.

Cabral had some stern advice for the tobacco industry.

“To the tobacco companies, I think they should start thinking of an alternative industry because we won’t stop until we put an end to smoking here in the country,” she said.

Cabral’s confidence may sound ironic, since she may be vacating her position on June 30, at the same time as her boss, President Arroyo. Some sectors are clamoring for her retention.

There has been no response to the clamor so far from presidential frontrunner Noynoy Aquino, an inveterate chain smoker under pressure to quit smoking from clergymen and anti-smoking advocates, including Cabral herself.

If the cigarette companies are eventually forced to put the frightening images of cancerous smokers on cigarette packages, the tobacco lobby may find comfort in the contrasting image of a president and idol of the youth lighting up and saying it relieves him of stress.– RJAB Jr./HS, GMANews.TV

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