February 05, 2021 at 12:05 am
Ernesto M. Hilario
"FDA officials said in a hearing last year that they received grants from foreign organizations known for dictating policies on tobacco control."
The Philippines’ Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a lot on its plate right now. Aside from issuing emergency use authorization (EUA) to vaccine makers, the FDA needs to explain reports that it received doles or grants from a foreign advocacy group.
Normally, there is nothing wrong with a government agency receiving technical assistance from well-funded organizations, except in the situation in which the FDA now finds itself.
Officials of the FDA, a regulatory agency under the Department of Health, confirmed in a public hearing in October last year that they received grants from foreign organizations known for dictating policies on tobacco control.
It could be dismissed as a simple lapse in judgment, but the FDA's consultation with Bloomberg Philanthropies could have far-reaching effects on the lives of Filipino smokers who wish to quit smoking.
Being a regulatory agency, the FDA was supposed to issue the implementing guidelines for the implementation of Republic Act No. 11467 and Executive Order No. 106 which allow but regulate the sale, distribution and taxation of vapor and heated tobacco products (HTPs) in the Philippines, non-combustible products that are considered better alternatives to conventional cigarettes.
Bloomberg's donation, in effect, was viewed as an attempt to sway the decision of the FDA against vaping, and it showed in the form of restrictive draft guidelines released by the FDA on vaping and the use of HTPs.
It was during a hearing on the initial draft guidelines that the controversy arose. Amid questioning by Ilocos Sur's First District Rep. Deogracias Victor Savellano and Nueva Ecija First District Rep. Estrellita Suansing, FDA officials confirmed that they were receiving grants from Bloomberg's foundations, which are known for their prohibitionist stance. Surprisingly, The Union and Bloomberg Initiative, two organizations funded by US billionaire and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, were not hiding their interference in tobacco control policies in developing countries such as the Philippines.
Bloomberg is a financial services billionaire who has no known expertise in the public health sphere, yet he is using his money to influence decisions in poorer countries.
In an article published by the New York Times in September 2019, Bloomberg announced a $1-billion donation to fight tobacco, including $160 million to ban all flavored e-cigarettes.
The Union confirmed on its website the organization's assistance in many countries. The Union has co-managed the Bloomberg Initiative to Reduce Tobacco Use Grants Program in partnership with the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
"Our work focuses on creating smoke-free public places, banning tobacco advertising, increasing tax on tobacco products, requiring graphic pack warnings and preventing tobacco industry interference in policymaking. Priority is given to countries with the highest prevalence of tobacco use," The Union said.
Under the program, The Union said it has supported over 50 countries worldwide to implement tobacco control policies, affecting billions of people.
In a separate post, The Union said that it has been working with the Philippines' Department of Health since July 2010 to "develop and promote legislation and policies that comply with the Philippines' commitments under the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, including Article 6 on implementing tax and price measures to reduce the demand for tobacco."
"Several Union grantees have been involved in supporting the development and enforcement of local government smoke-free ordinances, including the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority, FCAP (Framework Convention on Tobacco Control Alliance Philippines) in a series of regional provinces, and via the Civil Service Commission and its effort to raise awareness of and compliance with policy to exclude tobacco industry interference," The Union said.
No matter how noble its advocacy is, a foreign lobby group cannot just dictate policies on a country. While Bloomberg's advocacy may seem impressive at first glance, a second look may unravel a flawed policy on tobacco control that discourages the use of better alternatives to combustible cigarettes such as e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products (HTPs).
The prohibitionist policy of Bloomberg, which calls for a ban on e-cigarettes, may be counter-productive because it aims to deprive smokers of their choice for an alternative way out of smoking.
Aware of the efficacy of smoke-free alternatives to help smokers quit, Senate President Vicente Sotto III in November last year called on the FDA to review its draft guidelines and follow the provisions of RA 11467 and EO 106, not oppose them.
Tobacco harm reduction (THR) advocates slammed the initial draft of the FDA as too restrictive that may be tantamount to a total ban on e-cigarettes and HTPs, but the FDA remained mum on the issue, including the receipt of funding from Bloomberg.