Tobacco Industry Mocks Smoke-free Campaign; Various Groups Stand Firm in Support of MMDA

This is a press statement from Health Justice.

MANILA, Philippines. 15 July 2011 – Who holds the public’s best interest – MMDA or the tobacco industry? Although only at the second month of its smoke-free campaign, MMDA has relentlessly been receiving different forms of detestation for its new policies by the tobacco industry.

In a series of interviews, Chris Nelson, managing director of PMFTC,Inc. threatens that they are prepared to take action against MMDA’s initiative to ban cigarette smoking in public places. PMFTC is the joint venture corporation of Philip Morris and Fortune Tobacco, which controls 92% of the domestic market of cigarettes in the Philippines.

“From the beginning, we knew that this campaign would not be met with the favor of cigarette companies. However, there is this irrefutably miserable statistic that begs to be addressed: a Filipino dies a tobacco-related death every 6 minutes. As public servants, we are determined to push policies that protect our people,” states Chairman Francis Tolentino of MMDA.

These threats are not the only attempts of the tobacco industry to interfere in MMDA’s initiatives to promote public health. During the first quarter of the project, a representative of the tobacco industry visited the offices of MMDA in search of documents on the marketing strategies of the smoke-free campaign.

Local government units are also feeling the pressure. Officials from Quezon City, Marikina, and Las Piñas have relayed the increased number of visits from representatives of tobacco firms since the beginning of MMDA’s smoke-free campaign. According to the health officials, they are being offered assistance in their health projects and being intimidated on the pending cases of business establishments not complying with the policies on tobacco advertisements and promotions.

A Joint Memorandum Circular between CSC and DOH No.2010-01, however, states that government officials shall not accept any offer for assistance from the tobacco industry. Also, it prohibits unnecessary interactions with their representatives. This is to protect the bureaucracy from potential impediment of tobacco control measures by those who work to further the interests of the tobacco industry.

Trade groups have also attempted to impose burden on MMDA’s campaign. In June, Federation of Philippine Industries (FPI) wrote a letter to Executive Secretary Hon. Paquito N. Ochoa inquiring about the jurisdiction of MMDA to enforce provisions of RA 9211 and other smoke-free policies. The website of FPI shows that Philip Morris is a valued sponsor and Philip Morris’ Managing Director Chris Nelson sits on their Board of Directors.

“The Philippines is a party to World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. In compliance with Article 5.3 of this treaty, we need to be alert and firm in protecting our tobacco control policies from the commercial and vested interests of the tobacco industry,” states Atty. Evita Ricafort of HealthJustice, a public health law group.

Various groups stand firm and continue to express stronger support to MMDA.

“For members of tobacco industry to say that they support smoke-free policies yet threaten to sue MMDA is self-contradictory and an insult to the authority. There is clear intent to confuse and divide the public. These statements are anything but supportive of MMDA’s campaign for health,” former DOH secretary Dr. Esperanza Cabral says.

“As guardians of health of the Filipino nation, we cannot turn a blind eye to the vicious poison of second-hand and third-hand smoke. It is high time that the government implement measures that effectively protect Filipinos from this life-threatening addiction of the stubborn minority which adversely affects the non-smoking majority,” says Dr. Oscar Tinio, president of Philippine Medical Association.

“We sincerely commend the initiative of MMDA. A smoke-free environment discourages smoking and helps in reducing the risks of cancers brought about by second hand smoke. Cancer is the number three killer in the world. It is one of the most dreadful among non-communicable diseases. MMDA’s initiative saves lives” states Emer Rojas, the Global Cancer Ambassador for the Philippines and president of New Vois Association of the Philippines (NVAP). NVAP is a tobacco control advocacy group composed mainly of cancer victims that attribute their cancer to smoking.

“Under the law, there are designated areas for smoking. This may inconvenience smokers but majority of Filipinos are non-smokers; they also have the undeniable right to breathe clean air. We believe that a smoking ban is basic and necessary for general welfare. We congratulate and strongly support MMDA for this campaign,” Dr. Tinio emphasizes further.

Atty. Ipat Luna of Health Justice reiterates, “We hope the government will not waver in its public health commitment for smoke free implementation. There is an inherent contradiction between public health and the tobacco industry so we hope people in government will be firm, deflect any threats and reject any deals the industry might dangle. Health is not a choice; it is a basic standard.”