PH team earns praise, articulates nat’l interest in WHO tobacco confab

February 23, 2024 People's Journal 272 views

THE Philippine delegation to the recent World Health Organization’s global treaty on tobacco control earned praise from the chair conference, while articulating the country’s national interests and its balanced policy in protecting livelihood and the health of consumers.

This was the essence of the message delivered by Senior Deputy Executive Secretary Hubert Guevara, head of the Philippine delegation to the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control’s (FCTC) 10th Conference of the Parties in Panama during the Blue Ribbon Committee hearing called by the Senate after the country received the Dirty Ashtray award from a non-government organization that is not part of the conference.

“The much-emphasized Dirty Ashtray award was given to the Philippines supposedly for its brazen use of tobacco industry tactics of obstinate, dispute and delay throughout the COP. Nothing could be farther from the truth,” Guevara said during the Senate hearing.

“With all due respect, we were proud of how we conducted ourselves all throughout COP10. We can describe our participation in COP10 as collaborative, flexible, and consensus-building, always advocating for a way forward on deadlock issues,” said Guevara, denying accusations that the Philippines helped block consensus on the implementation of FCTC 10 Articles 9 and 10.

Guevara also denied proposing a compromise option that further muddled the discussion and caused more delays.

Guevara said that in fact, Dr. Nuntavarn Vichit-Vadakan, founding Dean of the School of Global Studies in the Faculty of Public Health at Thammasat University in Thailand and committee chair of the COP 10, thanked the Philippine delegation for its cooperation in reaching a consensus.

“I would like to extend my gratitude to the Philippines’ delegation for your cooperation in reaching a consensus regarding Agenda Item 6.2. Acknowledging the intricacies of the national context of the parties and agreeing to the requests of other parties while upholding your national interests demonstrates the collaborative spirit that is essential in negotiations. I expect that this trend will continue beyond COP 11. It was a delight to meet and collaborate with you all, particularly your distinguished Atty. Hubert Guevara,” Dr. Vichit-Vadakan said in email sent on February 14, 2024 to the Guevara.

Guevara said the Philippines suggested a compromise to resolve the deadlock between parties expressing preference for the establishment of an expert group and others favoring the co-activation of the working group.

“We suggested a third option as a possible compromise, supporting the reenactment of the working group composed of state parties working with the expert group, with the latter being accountable to the working group as an advisory and consultative group, and the mandate clearly with the state parties, which cannot be further delegated.” Guevara said.

Dr. Vichit-Vadakan cited the Philippines’ proposal as a starting point for a middle-of-the-road path that could lead the COP to consensus on the matter.

Guevara said that while the Philippines did not receive an Orchid Award, the polar opposite of the Dirty Ashtray Award, the committee chair acknowledged the cooperation of the Philippine delegation.

“In general, the Philippine delegation articulated a position based on a balanced policy approach and was very particular with the words we used,” he said.

Noting that his father died of lung cancer, Guevara said: “I saw firsthand the effects of smoking, the pain and suffering it causes. It is difficult for me to balance what I did to protect the rights of all people. But if by protecting our state policy, the 30,000 or more families whose lives are dependent on tobacco farming, and the rest of our countrymen who are able to avail of the benefits of our health care system, funded by the excise taxes imposed on the sale of tobacco, we are given the Dirty Ashtray Award, then I am willing to own it up as head of the delegation.”

He said the Philippine delegation had drafted national statements expressing the country’s position on each agenda item of the 10th Conference of the Parties based on two legislations, Republic Act 9211 and Republic Act 11900.

“These national statements underwent a rigorous drafting process with all agencies, including the Department of Health, comprising the Philippines’ delegation being well represented and having a voice in drafting each and every word. At one given time, the representatives met for about seven and a half hours straight to complete the draft statements as can be attested to by the members of the delegation to COP 10,” he said.

Guevara also said that before returning to the Philippines, he discussed with all the members of the delegation about developing an enforcement framework to eradicate or mitigate the illicit trade of tobacco and to stop the sale of e-cigarettes to minors.

“This was well taken, appreciated by the Department of Health, Department of Education, and the other members of the delegation.” he said.

In its statement to the COP10, the Philippine delegation noted the 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 varying national contexts and priorities and domestic legislation, which harm reduction experts commended.

Professor David Sweanor, chair of the advisory board of the Center for Health Law, Policy, and Ethics at the University of Ottawa, expressed support for the country’s resistance to efforts denying consumers safer alternatives to lethal cigarettes.

“To criticize a country for defending 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 Sweanor said.

Taxpayers Protection Alliance (TPA) international fellow Martin Cullip also praised the Philippines for its strong stance in favor of tobacco harm reduction. “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 noted.