International anti-smoking advocates defend Philippines in WHO conference


International anti-smoking advocates defended the Philippines from attempts to besmirch its reputation over the country’s endorsement of state policies that would effectively end smoking in the country.

“Health advocates in the Philippines successfully fought off a well-funded effort to deny consumers safer alternatives to lethal cigarettes. To attack a country for standing up for the right of people to access life-saving products shows a frighteningly authoritarian and moralistic agenda. If we are to successfully reduce cigarette smoking, anti-tobacco groups need to learn from countries like the Philippines rather than denigrate them,” Professor David Sweanor, chair of the advisory board of the Center for Health Law, Policy and Ethics at the University of Ottawa, said after the Philippines received again a “Dirty Ashtray” award from the Global Alliance on Tobacco Control (GATC) for espousing tobacco harm reduction at the 10th Conference of the Parties (COP10) convened by the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) in Panama from February 5 to 10, 2024.

Martin Cullip, an international fellow at Taxpayers Protection Alliance, said the Philippines had not been swayed by such attacks in the past. “In COP 9, the Philippines said ‘we are not going to ban these products, we are going to regulate them.’ And this sent shockwaves throughout the meeting,” he said.’

Cullip made these remarks during the international conference “GOOD COP/BAD COP” organized by the Taxpayers Protection Alliance (TPA). The meeting provided a platform for leading voices on consumer issues, national and global policies and harm reduction from 14 countries to discuss relevant tobacco control issues.

Cullip dismissed GATC’s attack on the Philippines as shameful. “This is GATC trying to influence, shame, and bully parties to the treaty. Parties are the boss of these proceedings, GATC is just an observer. It’s the tail wagging the dog, and I’m always surprised that national governments put up with this treatment,” he said.

“As expected, it is a part of the standard procedure of shaming any different position or if someone raises any concern to the narrative pushed by the WHO FCTC Secretariat,” said Jeffrey Zamora, president of Asovape Costa Rica and a board member of ARDT Iberoamerica, an alliance of consumer organizations championing tobacco harm reduction in the Iberoamerican region.

Senior Deputy Executive Secretary Hubert Guevara, head of the Philippine delegation to COP 10, highlighted in his presentation the country’s enactment of the Vape Law in 2022 to regulate vapes and novel tobacco products and reduce harm from smoking.

Guevara noted the importance of a tailored, multi-sectoral approach to FCTC implementation, acknowledging Article 1(d) of the FCTC, varying national contexts and priorities, and domestic legislation.

“This key achievement is the result of a collective and balanced approach, with whole-of-society and whole-of-government efforts, in advocating for and implementing effective policies and legislative measures,” he said.

Guevara also mentioned that in line with articles 5.1 and 5.3 of the FCTC, the Philippines has strengthened its multi-sectoral national strategy on tobacco regulation and tobacco regulation coordinating mechanism.

Dr. Lorenzo Mata, president of Quit For Good, a non-profit organization promoting harm reduction to mitigate the damage caused by cigarettes, expressed confidence that the Philippines’ progressive position, ridiculed by GATC and other groups, would be vindicated in the end due to its well-meaning intention to help smokers, not persecute them.

“Science is replete with examples of individuals who were ridiculed, persecuted or labeled as heretics for telling the truth. Pythagoras, Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton and Gregor Mendel were mistreated during their time, only to be vindicated later. I am confident that tobacco harm reduction, endorsed by the Philippines during the WHO FCTC Conference of the Parties, would be subsequently acknowledged as an effective and successful public health strategy that could help more than a billion smokers,” said Dr. Mata.

“This is not just a theory but is, in fact, being verified and experienced in several other countries such as Japan, the UK, and Sweden where smoke-free alternatives such as heated tobacco, vapes and oral nicotine have led to a substantial decline in smoking rates,” said Dr. Mata.

Anton Israel also criticized GATC and its allied organizations for interfering in the WHO FCTC proceedings by insulting delegates of countries that do not share their dogmatism. “It is a clear violation of the national sovereignty of the Philippines where the majority of Congress voted to pass the Vape Law to provide alternatives to millions of Filipino smokers,” said Israel.

“Sa halip na insulto, nararapat na kilalanin ang Pilipinas para sa pagtatanggol sa batay na agham at pragmatikong pamamaraan para wakasan ang paninigarilyo. Sa pag-regulate ng vaporized nicotine at non-nicotine products, matatanggal ng Pilipinas ang pangangailangan sa ashtray nang mas mabilis kaysa sa ibang mga bansang nagpapatupad sa prohibitionist at ‘quit-or-die’ na polisiya ng WHO FCTC,” Israel said.

“(Instead of insult, the Philippines deserves recognition for defending a science-based and pragmatic approach to end smoking.  By regulating vaporized nicotine and non-nicotine products, the Philippines will remove the need for ashtrays faster than any other countries sticking to the prohibitionist and ‘quit-or-die’ policies of the WHO FCTC,)” said Israel.

The Philippines became the first Southeast Asian country to enact comprehensive vape regulations in 2022, covering electronic cigarettes, heated tobacco, and other smoke-free products for adult consumers. These products, according to numerous scientific studies, have been found to be at least 95 percent less harmful than traditional cigarettes.

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