ON Thursday last week, the Philippines joined 80 countries in the world requiring all tobacco products manufactured or imported for sale in the country to carry graphic health warnings (GHWs) or photographs showing the health risks of smoking.
Signed in July 2014, the GHW law, or Republic Act 10643, took effect on Thursday.
In a news conference in Quezon City, various antismoking groups urged the public to help in the thorough implementation of the new law.
These include the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control Alliance Philippines (Fcap), HealthJustice Philippines, New Vois Association of the Philippines (Nvap) and the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (Seatca).
“Canada was the first to do so in 2001. In the Asean region, Singapore did it in 2004 followed by Thailand, Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia and Malaysia. Therefore, the Philippines lags behind on the GHW,” said Ulysses Dorotheo, Seatca FCTC program director.
The March 3 deadline comes one year after the Department of Health (DOH) issued the templates to be printed on cigarette packs. The templates comprise of realistic depictions of the ill effects of smoking, such as mouth and neck cancer, stroke and impotence.
Under the law, an additional eight-month period will be given to tobacco companies and retailers to exhaust old stocks. By November 2016, all tobacco-product packages sold and distributed in the country must have the prescribed GHWs.
“The 12-month grace period given to the tobacco industry to print GHWs is very much longer than what’s been required in other countries that have even bigger GHWs, such as Nepal [90 percent], Thailand [85 percent], Uruguay [80 percent], and Brunei Darussalam and Canada [75 percent], which all gave the industry only six months or less to comply. Sri Lanka [80 percent] and Jamaica [60 percent] gave the industry as short as three months to comply. The tobacco industry should have no excuse to delay implementation,” Dorotheo said.
The Philippines is a signatory to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which requires the implementation of “large, rotating health warnings on all tobacco-product packaging and labeling.” According to WHO standards, GHWs should be placed on 50 percent or more—but not less than 30 percent—of both front and back display areas of a cigarette pack. A maximum of 12 variations of the warnings will be rotated every 24 months.
Ten Filipinos die every hour because of tobacco-related illnesses, according to data gathered by FCAP.
“Pictures on packs are the most effective means of showing the harms brought about by tobacco abuse, causing premature death and diseases, including cancer,” Rommel Arriola, FCAP’s tobacco control technical officer, said.
“I lost my vocal chords to Stage 4 throat cancer due to smoking. I am just one of the lucky ones to survive such disease. Let us all do our share in pushing for the implementation of the GHW law. It may help reduce the number of victims of tobacco like us. Let us help save lives,” said Emer Rojas, Global Cancer ambassador and president of NVAP.
“With the recent release of implementing rules and regulations of the Graphic Health Warnings law, tobacco companies are left with no excuse but to comply with the law by today’s deadline,” said Irene Reyes, managing director of HealthJustice.
“Health advocates and the public should be vigilant to watch out for any attempt the tobacco industry may make to circumvent the law,” the health groups said, noting that tobacco companies had made attempts to water down the GHW law while it was still being deliberated on in Congress.
Party-list Rep. Lea Paquiz of Ang Nars attested on the impacts of the lobbying of tobacco industry in the policy area.
“Health advocates have been lobbying GHW policies for the past seven years. Repeatedly filed in the 14th and 15th Congresses; nothing happened. They killed it on first instance. With vigilance, we passed it on the 16th Congress. Indeed, for all of us here today, we must consider this a celebration,” Paquiz said.
With 240 Filipinos dying every day owing to major tobacco-related diseases, health advocates say picture-based warnings are also needed to warn Filipinos who cannot read or understand the current text warnings being used on cigarette packs.