The Department of Health minces no words about the harmful effects of vapes and e-cigarettes. They are “harmful and not risk-free, and similar to conventional cigarettes they contain chemicals that are highly toxic, addictive, and cancer-causing,” Health Secretary Francisco Duque III warned Congress in March, a last-ditch attempt to stop the passage of the “Vaporized Nicotine Products Regulation Act” or the Vape Bill.
“Do not fall prey to the tactics of the tobacco industry in marketing them as healthier alternatives, because they are not,” Duque added.
Congress passed the vape law anyway. It lowered the age limit of access to vape and similar products to 18 from 21 years old, a move that will encourage early use of harmful substances, according to health experts.
Pro-vape lawmakers insisted that the measure would help Filipinos quit smoking, offer a “safer” alternative, and save lives. The bill also transferred regulatory authority to the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under the Department of Health (DOH).
This was a legislative masterstroke by the pro-vape lawmakers — framing the bill as a trade issue and not about health.
The bill always had better prospects in the House of the Representatives, which is packed with representatives from tobacco-growing provinces. But it could have been blocked or delayed in the Senate, where Sen. Pia Cayetano is vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Health. She was a vocal critic of the measure.
Anti-tobacco advocates also saw the hand of the tobacco industry in the bill’s passage, citing executives’ cozy ties with several lawmakers who helped in passing the law.
Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA) Executive Director Ulysses Dorotheo said the success of the vape bill was a testament to wanton violations of a decade-long government order, DOH-Civil Service Commission Joint Memorandum Circular 2010-01, prohibiting government agencies and officials from interacting with the tobacco industry.
Children Rights Network convenor Romeo Dongeto claimed lobby money influenced Congress. “This latest development is one sore thumb that sadly betrays the fact that at the end of the day, moneyed lobbyists — especially from big tobacco — can have their way, even in the hallowed halls of Congress,” he said in a statement in December 2021.
Anti-tobacco advocates cited how companies such as Philip Morris International (PMI) had expanded their businesses to include e-cigarettes, vape, and similar products. In its website, PMI said it wanted these products to “one day replace cigarettes.”
Presidents of 43 medical groups including the Philippine Medical Association, the main organization of physicians in the country, slammed Congress for passing the bill in the middle of the pandemic.
“In truth, this bill is a deregulatory measure that was passed in haste to the surprise and dismay of the medical profession while we were preoccupied with the COVID-19 pandemic,” the doctors said in a Dec. 17, 2021 letter.
The vape bill is awaiting President Rodrigo Duterte’s signature, although the enrolled bill has yet to be transmitted to Malacañang as of June 8, the Presidential Legislative Liaison Office at the House of Representatives told PCIJ in a phone call.
As the wait drags on, health advocates are doubling down on their call for Duterte, whose term ends at noon of June 30, to veto the measure once it reaches his desk.
Northern Luzon Alliance
The vape bill first gained ground in the House of Representatives when the leadership calendared House Bill 9007 for sponsorship and plenary debate in March 2021, while the pandemic was still raging and the country was recording 30,000 to 50,000 Covid-19 cases weekly.
It was the second of three stages of approval — second reading — in the legislative chamber. But what was supposed to be the most difficult stage of the legislative process was completed within two months. On May 19, 2021, the House approved the bill on final reading.
The bill moved with the support of traditional industry allies from the Northern Luzon Alliance (NLA), a legislative bloc composed of 48 legislators from regions that rely on tobacco as a source of livelihood and revenue.
As early as September 2019, two Ilocos Sur representatives — Deputy Speaker Deogracias Victor Savellano and Grace Kristine Singson-Meehan — co-filed a bill seeking the regulation of vape as part of “harm reduction.”
Savellano and Singson-Meehan were NLA president and secretary, respectively.
Savellano, who has a long history of engagement with tobacco companies in his province, would prove to be pivotal not just in pushing the vape bill but in countering opposition to the measure.
While anti-tobacco advocates slammed alleged lobbying by Philipp Morris International, Savellano co-authored a resolution calling for an investigation into what he called “interference” by the Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charitable organization of American businessman and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. He cited a grant it gave the FDA to develop vape or e-cigarette guidelines and policies.
Former health secretary Esperanza Cabral dismissed Savellano’s criticisms against the Bloomberg grant. “If it is interference for Bloomberg to provide FDA or DOH with assistance for what is a declared national belief — tobacco is harmful to your health — it is interference from organizations such as USAID to be providing assistance to any and all of our other programs and advocacies. I'll bet if the assistance provided were for the promotion of tobacco smoking, they would not be complaining,” Cabral said.
The House probe, which dragged on for at least four hearings, became a public relations opportunity for vape and e-cigarettes.
The Philippine E-cigarette Industry Association (PECIA) celebrated its “media gains” in recent years, citing “elevated public stature and social awareness” for the group in a public post thanking its PR agency.
The Coalition of Asia Pacific Tobacco Harm Reduction Advocates (CAPHRA) also celebrated its growth and development as an organization while promoting its objective of “expand[ing] across the wider Pacific region.”
CAPHRA was established in 2018 or a year before the vape bills were filed in Congress. It has continued to promote the vape bill and urge Duterte to sign it into law.
Savellano’s international campaign
Anti-tobacco advocates also underscored the role Savellano, the NLA president, in pushing for vape and e-cigarettes in the international arena.
Savellano was among the 10 co-heads of the Philippine delegation during the virtual 9th Conference of Parties to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), a treaty ratified by the country in 2005, on Nov. 8 to 13, 2021. He was the only elected official in the delegation.
Other co-heads included the secretaries of foreign affairs, trade and industry, and health, as well as the permanent representatives to the United Nations, World Trade Organization, and WHO.
Cabral said Savellano’s designation as co-head was unusual because DOH officials had been traditionally appointed to these positions in the delegation. “I suppose any government official, elected or not, can be part of the team. I think, however, that it should be an official of the DOH who should head the delegation,” she said.
Anti-tobacco advocates said it was the tobacco industry’s strategy to boost the presence of delegates who were not from the health sector. This was reported by Reuters in a series of exclusive reports in 2017, alleging that one of Philip Morris International’s “goals has been to boost the presence of delegates in the national treaty delegations who are not from health agencies.”
The report added that more representatives from government agencies on tax, finance, or agriculture, which could prioritize tobacco revenues over health concerns, have participated in recent years.
“The FCTC itself obligates parties, including the Philippines, to protect tobacco control policies from tobacco industry interests. Certainly, the COP9 is not a place to coddle this dangerous industry and give it a chance to join the policy discussions,” said SEATCA’s Dorotheo.
Indeed, the Philippine delegation made pro-tobacco industry statements, including the promotion of vape and heated tobacco products, which they described as a “source of good.” They also praised the tobacco industry for its efforts in self-regulation and developing newer alternatives.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr added: “The industry has not sat on its hands, nor allowed this popular vice to go unchecked. It has created products that deliver a similar satisfaction but with far less harm.”
It was a reversal of previous tobacco control pronouncements and commitments of the Philippines, prompting the DOH to disassociate the department from the statement of the delegation, where Health Secretary Duque was a co-head.
“There is no good in tobacco,” the DOH said.
The statement highlighted the cost of tobacco-related diseases, which it said amounted to P177 billion annually or seven times higher than total taxes collected from tobacco products in 2011.
“Giving misleading information that dilutes the risks of tobacco products and undue recognition to tobacco industries, including those of vapor products and heated tobacco products, is harmful. The statements made by the Philippine delegation negate the very principles of the WHO FCTC and undermine the progress the Philippines has made to curb tobacco use,” the DOH said.
Prior to the conference, in January 2021, Savellano also sent a letter to British parliament member Mark Pawsey. He invited the chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPG) for Vaping at the House of Commons to “actively participate” in the virtual summit held in November. In the UK, these groups, although led by members of parliament, are informal associations representing their and their peers’ interests.
He wanted the groups to “work together” or for Pawsey to “help us create a counterpart alliance in the Philippines in order to open vital conversations on public health.”
“I genuinely believe that what we have here is an opportunity to address the prevalence of use of combusted cigarettes while avoiding the FCTC’s stifling approach which is counter-productive for public health and consumer welfare.”
“I am more than willing to participate during your public hearings and consultations to provide the perspective of a lawmaker from a low-to-middle income country (LMIC) like the Philippines,” he said.
This reporter reached out to Savellano several times but to no avail.
Movements in the Senate
The legislative path was cleared for the vape bill when it got the support of top Senate leaders: Senate President Vicente Sotto III, Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri, and Senate President Pro-Tempore and subcommittee on trade and commerce chairman Ralph Recto. They each filed their own versions of the bill.
The transfer of the bills from the Senate health committee to the trade and commerce committee on March 8, 2021 was pivotal, following the route of their counterpart bills in the House of Representatives. The transfer was made one week before the House released its pro-vape committee report. The vape bill has moved quickly since.
A subcommittee, chaired by Recto, was created to hear the bills. Anti-tobacco advocates referred to him as a "known industry ally," owing to his watered-down version of the 2012 sin tax bill, which would have favored tobacco companies.
The Senate passed its own version of the vape bill, Senate Bill 2239, on third and final reading on December 16, 2021.
Committee leadership proved to be crucial in any legislative process. A non-supportive committee chairperson might delay or even kill a measure as the bulk of the legislative work is done in these committees.
Sen. Pia Cayetano, vice chairperson of the committee on health and a staunch anti-tobacco advocate, opposed the bill transfer and, later on, the passage of the bill.
During a Sept. 22, 2021 virtual Senate session, Cayetano asked for the reason for the move. The chairman of the committee on health, Sen. Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go, was absent. Recto, the bill sponsor, said it was the decision of the senators.
“Whether it’s the decision of the plenary, we all know how it works here. Somebody initiates it and they ask if there’s no objection. I actually objected. I’d like to know, why was it moved?” Cayetano asked.
Cayetano did not receive a definitive response. Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri said: “If there’s one person who knows vaping the most in the Senate, it’s no other than Senator Recto, when it comes to using the material. So I guess he took it upon himself to practice what he preaches.”
Sotto defended the bill’s passage despite strong opposition from the DOH. "Must be because [the bill] was languishing too long and if unregulated, [vaping] will be abused."
"Pandemic was from 2020 to 2021. Nevertheless, all these years people were using e-cigarettes without regulations. Do they want to keep it that way? Government will have no say on how it is used?” Sotto said in a message to PCIJ.
Anti-tobacco groups noted the attendance of Sotto and other lawmakers in a 2018 summit at the London South Bank University in the UK, which adopted a pro-vape and harm reduction approach or the lowering of risks of tobacco by using alternatives. This was the tobacco industry’s preferred approach instead of tobacco control.
After the summit, Sotto urged the DOH to conduct further studies on the benefits of vaping, noting the studies in the UK. “Dito may alternative, ang tingin nila, masama. Pero ang 80% ng gumamit niyan, hindi lang survey, pati studies ng UK, ay hindi na bumalik sa paninigarilyo. O, e ‘di ba successful? (There is an alternative. They (critics) think it is harmful, but 80% of users, based on surveys and studies in the UK show that they were able to stop their smoking habits. Isn't that successful?)” Sotto said in a radio interview.
“‘Yung kasalukuyang perspective ng DOH hindi ako masyadong palo d’yan kasi contrary sa mga studies abroad e, so kailangan i-match nilang mabuti at tignan nilang mabuti kasi ang napupuna lang ‘yung masamang epekto. Ang magandang epekto ‘yung napapatigil ang sigarilyo, hindi nakikita ‘yon (I do not agree with the currect perspective of the DOH because it is contrary to studies abroad. They need to look at those, too, because they're only looking at the harmful effects of these products. They're not seeing the benefits),” Sotto said.
The Senate President has repeatedly shared the story of how his brother was able to quit smoking through vaping after over four decades.
Anti-tobacco groups were abuzz when they saw a photo of Sotto with Philip Morris representatives in the UK. But the senator denied suggestions that his trip was paid for by the tobacco company.
“Yes, [it wasn’t paid by them.] A I forgot na kasi. Malamang ‘yun trip ko personal. I usually pay for my trips abroad, unless on official function or mission, then the Senate pays for it. Very seldom,” Sotto said.
Apart from Sotto and Recto, a third senator caught the eye of anti-tobacco advocates — Sen. Richard Gordon, the chairman of humanitarian group Philippine Red Cross (PRC), who also voted in favor of the vape bill.
PRC has received millions of pesos from Philip Morris and its affiliate Philip Morris Fortune Tobacco Corp., based on public pronouncements by the PRC and Gordon himself.
“I’m not going to advertise them but I’ll get the money. The government is getting money from the cigarette companies, why can’t we use it to help people out? I’m sure I’m wrong there but heck, I’m being practical,” Gordon said in May 2019 during a Senate deliberation on additional sin taxes that the PRC received money from tobacco companies. In 2008, Philip Morris also donated P2 million to the Red Cross during Gordon’s birthday fundraising event.
PRC is not a government entity, but SEATCA’s Dorotheo said Gordon is a government official who is “obliged to comply” with the FCTC and the DOH-CSC Joint Memorandum Circular 2010-01 prohibiting government officials and employees from interacting with the tobacco industry.
“He is obliged to reject tobacco industry donations and so-called CSR by tobacco companies in order to protect public health policies from the vested and commercial interests of the industry,” he said.
Internal guidelines of the International Federation of Red Cross (IFRC)published in 2015, obtained by PCIJ, admonished Red Cross societies “to neither engage in partnerships with nor funding from the tobacco industry.”
“Such action is urgent in view of the movement’s deep concern not to be associated with an industry that brings to market a product – tobacco – that continues to cause enormous public health damage, killing some 6 million people each year,” said the IFRC internal guidelines brief that the PCIJ obtained.
Gordon has yet to respond to PCIJ’s repeated requests for comment.
Chavit Singson’s claim
Photo by Camille Elemia
Former Ilocos Sur governor and now Narvacan town mayor Luis “Chavit” Singson, who is known for his pro-tobacco industry stance, had a simple explanation for the expedited passage of the vape bill — lobby money.
He said the tobacco industry provided financial support to lawmakers although he provided no concrete evidence to support his claim. “E, may funding sila lahat, balita ko malaki binibigay sa kanila (They're all funded. I heard they were given big sums),” he said.
Singson was a lawmaker himself in the early post-1986 People Power years. But he insisted he did not receive any money from the tobacco industry. “Kakaumpisa lang ng Congress noon kay Cory [Aquino]. Wala pang masyadong “no smoking” policies noon, ‘di pa masyado malakas (Congress just started under Cory Aquino. There was no strong push for "no smoking" politicies then).”
These days Singson claimed that Philip Morris Fortune Tobacco Corporation Inc. (PMFTC Inc.) — a joint venture that resulted from the merger between PMI and Fortune tobacco company of business tycoon Lucio Tan in 2010 — has been seeking allies to oppose any proposal to further raise sin taxes. Singson claimed it was also intended to counter the Bloomberg anti-tobacco campaign.
Singson’s relationship with the chairman of PMFTC, Lucio Tan, is complicated to say the least. He previously accused Tan and his group of “destroying” the livelihood of the farmers. Tan however was a principal sponsor in the wedding of Singson’s son Ryan and Savellano’s daughter Patricia in 2010.
Singson claimed Tan also recently asked him for a favor: Ask his former friend Sen. Manny Pacquiao to stop pushing for the bill that will impose additional sin taxes – a move that later on sparked the feud between Pacquiao and Singson.
Tobacco companies have been “convicted of criminal activity involving corruption in other countries.” In 2010, the US Securities and Exchange Commission charged two global tobacco companies — Universal Corporation Inc. and Alliance One International Inc. — with violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) for paying bribes to government officials in Thailand and other countries.
In a 2006 landmark decision, a US District Court ruled that tobacco companies, including Philip Morris USA, Altria Group, and RJ Reynolds, were guilty of breaking civil racketeering laws, marketing to children, and lying about the dangers of smoking.
In 2012, the EU Commission ordered its health commissioner to quit following substantiated bribery claims.
In the Philippines, PMFTC Inc. said it was “committed to the highest form of ethical standards.”
"As a global industry leader in the cigarette and smoke-free business, Philip Morris International and all its affiliates including PMFTC Inc. are committed to the highest form of ethical standards in the conduct of our operations and to achieve our vision to offer adult consumers who would otherwise continue to smoke with better alternatives,” the company said in an email to PCIJ.
“With a billion smokers around the world and millions of people working in the tobacco supply chain – from farms to retail shops – there are many interested parties and many views on the role of tobacco in society. We will continue to participate in discussions and share our perspectives with all relevant stakeholders,” it added.
Sotto vehemently denied receiving lobby money. “Sen. Panfilo Lacson and I have always been known for unaccepting such, whether in cash or in kind. Therefore you can be sure that I will always preserve the integrity of my office as Senate President,” said Sotto, referring to his running mate in the May 2022 elections.
Recto also dismissed tags that he's an ally of the tobacco industry. "I suggest you read the records in the Senate," he said.
PCIJ was unable to reach Savellano and Gordon for comment.
With a few weeks left in the Duterte administration, the fate of the controversial vape bill hangs in the balance. Will Duterte choose health, trade, or neither?
If vetoed, the measure would have to be refiled in the next Congress and again navigate the legislative mill. If Duterte signs or allows it to lapse into law, health experts and anti-tobacco experts warn of increased addiction to cigarettes and alcohol and illicit drugs. END
This story was produced under the ‘Nagbabagang Kuwento Special Reports: Tobacco Industry Interference Story Grants Program’ by Probe Media Foundation Inc. (PMFI) and Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids (CTFK). The views and opinions expressed in this piece are not necessarily those of PMFI and CTFK.
Top Photo: Shutterstock.com