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Heavy costs of smoking

Cigarette manufacturers in the Philippines and other parts of the world are reeling from constrictive regulations and legal setbacks that threaten their viability.

Two weeks ago, a court in Canada ordered three large tobacco companies—JTI-Macdonald, Imperial Tobacco and Rothmans, Benson & Hodges—to pay US$12.4 billion in damages to more than one million Canadians who used their products.

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Considered to be the biggest class action suit in Canada, the case was filed in 1998 by two groups of smokers —one group claimed to have become seriously ill from smoking and the other said they could not stop smoking.

The plaintiffs said the companies knew they were selling a harmful product and that they hid the health effects of tobacco.

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The companies argued that the smokers were aware of the risks of smoking and that health warnings had been on the cigarette packs for more than 40 years.

In deciding for the plaintiffs, the court said “the companies earned billions of dollars at the expense of the lungs, the throats and the general well-being of their customers.

“If the companies are allowed to walk away unscathed now, what would be the message to other industries that today or tomorrow find themselves in a similar moral conflict?”

Compensation

Despite the companies’ expression of their intention to appeal the award, the court ordered them to pay an initial compensation of more than $800 million to the plaintiffs within 60 days from the promulgation of the decision.

At about the same time last year, in the United States, a Florida jury held R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. liable for $40.4 billion in damages to the widow of a smoker who died of lung cancer in 1996.

The widow’s lawyer said “the jury wanted to send a statement that tobacco companies cannot continue to lie to the American people and the American government about the addictiveness of and the deadly chemicals in their cigarettes.”

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This case is being reviewed by an appellate court. If the award is upheld, other US tobacco companies facing similar cases in other states could find themselves in serious trouble.

Health advocates in the Philippines can only drool with envy at these foreign court decisions.

Of the 11 suits filed against local tobacco companies in our courts in recent years, not one has been won!

Through their lawyers, these firms have successfully derailed government efforts to strictly regulate the sale or use of tobacco products.

Graphic warnings

The most health advocates have, so far, been able to accomplish in their anti-tobacco campaign is the enactment in 2014 of Republic Act No. 10643, the Graphic Health Warning Law.

Last March, the Department of Health issued the 12 templates of graphic photos that will appear on cigarette packs for two years.

The warnings shall be printed on 50 percent of the principal display surface of the package, and occupy 50 percent of the front and 50 percent of the back panel of the packaging.

The “accompanying text shall be printed in Filipino on the front panel and English on the back panel.” If the container has only one external surface area, the text will alternately be in English or Filipino.

The graphic photos, published in a broadsheet, show the adverse effects of smoking, e.g., head, neck and throat cancers, gangrene and emphysema. The photos are gory and gruesome. They aim to discourage would-be smokers from getting into the habit and those already hooked to kick it.

Higher taxes

The campaign to wean the public away from tobacco has been boosted by the additional taxes imposed in 2012 on cigarettes by the Sin Tax Reform Law.

In 2013, cigarette packs with a net retail price of P11.50 were slapped a tax of P12 while those sold for over P11.50 got hit with P25 tax. In 2014, the tax on low-priced cigarettes was increased to P17, with the tax on high-priced cigarettes steady at P25.

Come 2017, both kinds of cigarettes will be taxed P30 and a four percent annual increase in tax will be imposed in succeeding years.

According to the law’s proponents, the additional taxes, aside from raising funds for the government, are intended to reduce tobacco consumption by the youth and the poor.

Apparently, this objective is being met, at least as far as the largest sector of our society is concerned.

A study conducted by Social Weather Stations in 2014 showed that the increase in cigarette prices resulted in the reduction of smokers from the country’s poorest economic class from 38 percent in December 2012 to 25 percent in March 2014.

The high costs of smoking, restrictions in advertising and the psychological effects of the graphic warnings could deal a serious blow to the local tobacco industry.

According to reports, the countries that require graphic warnings on cigarette packs have reported reductions in the sale of tobacco products.

The fear of chronic suffering of the illnesses caused by tobacco use may have scared the wits out of habitual cigarette smokers and those starting to think that smoking is cool.

Recent events in our country and in places where tobacco companies used to be the darling of their stock markets seem to indicate that tobacco production is becoming a “sunset industry.”

This impression may not sit well with the people in Northern Luzon who rely on tobacco for their livelihood. But it is a reality they have to accept and prepare for, and soon.

It’s just a matter of time before the Marlboro man rides into the sunset and not come back ever again.

For comments, please send your email to “[email protected]

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