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SYDNEY, Australia -- As other countries in the Asia Pacific count their gains in the war against the tobacco lobby, the Philippines remains a haven for the cigarette industry and its millions of loyal patrons. At an international conference on tobacco control here, hundreds of scientists and advocates from around the region heard of plans for Australia to abolish commercial labels on cigarette packs by 2012. Bhutan has banned the sale of tobacco altogether. Nearly 40 countries around the globe have picture health warnings on cigarette packs, one of the most cost-effective interventions in public health, according to Dr. Geoffrey Fong, a Canadian expert who spoke at the Asia Pacific Conference on Tobacco or Health here. Some countries like Brazil are experimenting with increasingly scary photos on cigarette packs of grotesque victims of cancer caused by smoking. In 2012, Australia will still retain the picture warnings but on plain white packaging, without brand logos or designs.
RP: 18 million male smokers and counting In the Philippines, however, a government order this year requiring picture warnings on cigarette packs has been stymied in three Philippine courts that have issued orders stopping the initiative after petitions by the tobacco industry. Only word warnings currently appear on cigarette packs in the Philippines, not seen as having a great impact on the nearly half of adult Filipino men and one-tenth of women who smoke. Moreover, cigarettes are taxed lightly in the Philippines compared to other nations, making them more affordable to consumers. The Philippines is one of the cheapest places in the world to buy Marlboro cigarettes, among the globe’s leading brands. With cheap cigarettes that come in packaging without adequate health warnings, the Philippines is ninth in the world in the number of male smokers, with nearly 18 million, according to The Tobacco Atlas published by the American Cancer Institute. Tobacco companies dominate RP Anti-smoking advocates were elated earlier this year when then-Health Secretary Esperanza Cabral issued an Administrative Order requiring tobacco companies to place health warnings with pictures of cancer victims on all cigarette packs. Five tobacco companies challenged the order in five different Philippine courts. Two judges issued injunction orders temporarily preventing its implementation, while a third, Judge Brigido Luna of the Parañaque Regional Trial Court, issued a final decision last September 8 in favor of the owners of La Suerte Cigar and Cigarette Factory by declaring Cabral’s order "null and void." The Department of Health has elevated the issue to the Supreme Court. "The tobacco industry is sending a message in the Philippines – this is where they dominate," said Dr. Judith Mackay, a co-author of The Tobacco Atlas and a long-time tobacco control advocate in Southeast Asia. "What the Philippines needs are a president and government that are seriously committed to the health of the people." Mackay adds that it doesn’t help that the Philippines has a president that smokes. "Being a non-smoker would help your president be more objective about smoking," she said. "It would clear the air, so to speak, so he can make better decisions about it." However, she credits President Noynoy Aquino for saying that "he wants to quit, recognizing that it is an addiction. He is embarrassed by it and is no longer seen smoking in public." Mackay said that China, the world’s leading smoking nation, used to be identified with its chain-smoking leader Deng Xiaoping, but is now led by men who do not smoke or at least have not been seen smoking in public. Tobacco industry officials in the Philippines have not returned calls by GMANews.TV. But on the Philip Morris Philippines' web site, it states: "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 plain packaging, point of sale display bans, total bans on communications to adult consumers, and bans on the use of all ingredients in tobacco products." Ironically, while Philip Morris opposes graphic health warnings on cigarette packs sold in the Philippines, it manufactures in its giant plant in Batangas cigarettes exported to Thailand that have gruesome cancer pictures. Thailand imposes heavier restrictions on tobacco. Onus on Congress The judicial impasse for the Department of Health order for graphic health warnings has "created an onus for Congress to act quickly on legislation," according to lawyer Debby Sy, executive director of the anti-smoking advocacy group Health Justice. Previous attempts to pass legislation on picture health warnings, however, were defeated by the tobacco industry’s allies in Congress. – TJD, GMANews.TV