As soon as we received a copy of the ratified Vape Bill from the office of Rep. Sharon Garin, one of the main proponents of the bill in Congress, my colleagues at the FAME Leaders Academy and I carefully studied the 30 sections of the bill, which aims to regulate the importation, manufacture, sale, packaging, distribution, use and communication of vaporized nicotine and nonnicotine products and novel tobacco products in the country.
If enacted into law, the bill mandates the state to adopt as a state policy the promotion of a healthy environment, the protection of the citizens from the potential hazards of vaporized nicotine products (VNPs) that include electronic cigarettes and heated tobacco products, and the reduction of harm caused by smoking (Section 2). These are noble objectives and should rightfully be the common objectives of all antismoking advocates.
More importantly, it is also well specified under the Declaration of Policy of the bill that the state should ensure that sale to minors of VNPs is prevented.
We’re confident that should this bill be enacted into law, the drafters of the Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRRs)—which should include the Department of Health (DOH), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD)—will make sure that the main intent of the law is properly implemented and the youth is safeguarded.
Contrary to what others who oppose the bill are saying, the bill, as ratified by the Bicameral Committee, is sufficiently replete with provisions that aim to protect minors or those who are below 18 years old. If you carefully study the bill, you will notice how serious our legislators are in ensuring that the bill puts a premium on the welfare of all Filipino minors.
There are a total of 16 provisions that provide the regulatory requirements applicable to VNPs and novel tobacco products (NTPs). Interestingly, 12 or two-thirds of these sections actually contain express language that mentions the protection of those who are below 18 years old.
Take, for example, the mandatory use of child-resistant VNP receptacles (Section 5); required age verification for online sales (Section 8); the prohibition of sales and promotion within 100 meters from school perimeters (Section 9); restricting any commercial product communications targeted to or particularly appealing to minors (Section 12.a); prohibiting the use of social media influencers and celebrities as product endorsers (Section 12.b); and prohibiting product promotions aimed at minors (Section 13) or the participation of minors in VNP industry sponsored events (Section 14).
Note that violations of these sections are meted with fines or imprisonment as penalties. In case the offender is a minor, the bill also mandates both the DOH and DSWD to implement appropriate intervention programs.
One of the contentions of tobacco control advocates is that the Vape Bill reverses the gains of Republic Act (RA) 11467 by lifting the ban on the sale of e-cigarettes with flavors other than menthol and tobacco. However, we beg to disagree with our fellow advocates on this.
There is no express provision in the Vape Bill that openly allows vaping companies to manufacture e-cigarettes with flavors other than menthol and tobacco. Looking at the Repealing Clause of the Vape Bill (Section 29), there is also no mention that the flavor restriction under RA 11467 is repealed.
From our understanding, what the drafters of the Vape Bill did was to actually add another flavor-related restriction by now prohibiting the use of flavor descriptors (Section 12.j). This is important to prevent any attempt at marketing semantic deception by vaping companies.
For example, even if they don’t use the actual fruit flavor in manufacturing their product, the company may use “descriptors” such as “strawberry-like” or “tastes like strawberry” in their product labels and thus attract minors. This is no longer possible because flavor descriptors such as reference to a fruit, candy brand, dessert or to a cartoon character are now expressly prohibited under the Vape Bill.
There are also fears from tobacco control advocates that the Vape Bill effectively stripped the FDA of any form of effective control in regulating VNPs and NTPs. This is also not accurate, as both the DTI and the FDA are tasked to ensure the enforcement of the regulatory requirements set by the bill.
The Vape Bill clearly recognizes the expertise of the FDA in terms of the health and medical aspects of VNPs and NTPs. Any health claims from these products should be evaluated and approved by the FDA as provided under RA 9711 or the FDA Act of 2009 (Sections 12 k & l).
Finally, the FDA is also tasked to work with the DTI in drafting the IRRs of the Vape Bill. This is not new, as the FDA has always been consulted by the DTI and only recently, the DTI in collaboration with FDA issued the product standards applicable to e-cigarettes.
We enjoin all of us involved in the tobacco control advocacy to remain focused on combating our ultimate adversary: cigarettes. Anything that can prevent our smokers from continuing smoking cigarettes is a big step in the right direction. We should also all try to genuinely work together in achieving this goal.
We reiterate that complete smoking cessation remains the gold standard and the main goal, but allowing the use of less harmful alternative tobacco products such as e-cigarettes and HTPs—and properly regulating them—can serve as a pragmatic middle ground for the far bigger majority of smokers who simply cannot quit smoking. Smokers need all the second chances they can get to give up cigarette smoking for good.
We must also always find a way to collaborate among all stakeholders with integrity, as we empower the public by giving them the right information. We should join hands to pursue our common cause of ending the smoking epidemic in the country and save the lives of 16 million Filipino smokers. From where we stand, the regulated use of VNPs appears to be our best bet to reduce the number of smokers in the country to its bare minimum (around 4 million) in 10 years.
Most importantly, we should do this through science and evidence-based discussions and healthy debates, and not resort to smear campaigns. We should not also mislead the public, the media, and the medical community about the science behind VNPs. People who smoke should not have to suffer or die because they don’t have access to or have received wrong information about less harmful nicotine sources such as the use of vaporized nicotine products.
Denying our smokers such opportunity to improve their long-term health outcome and possibly liberate them completely from the bondage of nicotine addiction could be the greatest injustice we could do to them.