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Smoking curbs fail in the Philippines 

Jump to full article: Asia Times, 2012-03-06
Author: Cher S Jimenez


US-based tobacco giant Philip Morris International (PMI) rolled out a US$300 million tobacco factory in the Philippines in 2003, then the company's single biggest investment in Asia. . . .

In the same year that the plant opened, anti-smoking groups notched a major advocacy victory with the passage of the Philippine Tobacco Regulations Act (PTRA). The law, a product of around three decades of campaigning by mostly non-governmental groups . . .

Despite that legislation, cigarette consumption nine years later is still high in the Philippines, with over one-third of the population regularly puffing. The country has the second-highest tobacco consumption rate in Southeast Asia, lagging only Indonesia. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Department of Health (DoH) estimate smoking-related illnesses and productivity losses cost the Philippines over 300 billion pesos (US$7 billion) per year - an estimate the local tobacco lobby has questioned.

The DoH has blamed tobacco companies' strong influence over Philippine politics . . .

PMPMI's website says: "While we support comprehensive, effective tobacco regulation, we do not support regulation that prevents adults from buying and using tobacco products or that imposes unnecessary impediments to the operation of the legitimate tobacco market. In that regard, we oppose measures such as generic packaging, point of sale display bans, total bans on communications to adult consumers, and bans on the use of all ingredients in tobacco products."

Around 40 countries worldwide at present legally require locally sold cigarette packs to include often graphic picture warnings depicting the risks of smoking. Similar warnings were ordered by the Philippine DoH in 2010, but tobacco companies have challenged the order in court. . . .

At the same time, the tobacco industry has gone into public relations overdrive. Protobex Asia and Inter-Tabac Asia 2012, reportedly the largest international tobacco trade fair ever to be held anywhere in the world, will take place in Manila at the state-run Philippine International Convention Center (PICC) later this month. FCAP has protested the move and asked the government to cancel the event, arguing that under the WHO's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control a government facility is not allowed to hold such an exhibit. . . .

Lucio Tan, owner of Fortune Tobacco, the Philippines' largest tobacco company until its February 2010 merger with PMI, is among the country's best politically connected businessmen. Since the merger, Tan and PMPMI have devised more aggressive measures to market their tobacco products. Critics say a move to sell half-sized packages, reduced from 20 to 10 sticks per pack, aims to make cigarettes more accessible for cash-strapped youth. Already cigarettes are sold on a per stick basis by informal vendors on Philippine street corners. . . .

Tobacco firms, however, are fighting back against higher tax bills and greater legal liability. In one well-publicized case, a lower court last year issued a restraining order against the Metro Manila Development Authority from apprehending people caught smoking in public areas, including transport terminals. In a direct challenge to the PTRA, a PMPMI office worker and a security guard filed two separate cases against their arresting officers. Although they were both charged with smoking in a public place in their personal capacities, PMPMI paid their legal fees.

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