Group accuses party-list of ‘fronting’ for tobacco industry

A network of anti-tobacco advocates has asked the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to disqualify a party list organization accusing it of being a front group for the powerful tobacco industry.

In a letter addressed to poll chairman Sixto Brillantes, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control Alliance, Philippines (FCAP), an umbrella organization of groups and individuals from medical and professional organizations, faith-based youth, and environmental groups strongly involved in upholding tobacco control laws, opposed the candidacy of Agrarian Development Association whose nominees are closely identified with the tobacco industry.

ADA, a party list group representing farmers accredited by the Comelec but lost during the last sectoral election, is again vying to get a seat for the 2013 Congressional poll. The party list law requires that 20 percent of the seats in the House of Representatives should comprise of marginalized groups.

The partylist is said to be represented by Eric Singson, Eric Singson Jr., Rodolfo Salanga, Blake Clinton Dy, Grace Kristine Singson Meehan, andVictor Manuel Jr.

"The four nominees of the ADA belong to the affluent, the influential and the powerful by reason of their individual or familial wealth or the political and economic ties they have honed and developed through the years. They are neither marginalized nor underrepresented. They are rich people who use the poor, marginalized sector, in the hope of gaining a seat in Congress," said FCAP in its August 27 letter to the Comelec.

Eric Singson was a former Congressman of Ilocos Sur's 2nd district while his son, Eric Singson Jr., is the incumbent representative of the same district. Salanga is a long-time president of the Philippine Tobacco Institute (PTI) while Dy operates the Anglo-American Tobacco Corp.

FCAP reminded the Comelec that Section 2 of Republic 7941 or the Party-List System Act requires nominees of sectoral parties to "belong to marginalized and underrepresented sectors, organizations and parties."

"It is an insult to genuine marginalized groups that a tobacco industry-backed organization like ADA was allowed to misrepresent itself as a legitimate party list movement. The tobacco industry's imprint is all over ADA and its nominees. The Comelec should immediately disqualify this group," said Roberto Del Rosario, FCAP's president, in a statement.

The group also questioned ADA's lineup of nominees when these people were neither founders nor officers of the farmer's group.

In its manifestation of intent to participate in the 2013 elections submitted before the Comelec, ADA lists its founders and officers as: Andres Tungpalan, Santos Fiesta, Fely Silvestre, Catalina Valeriano, and Rosalina Cruz.

"This is not just a clear misrepresentation of the agrarian sector but a direct assault on our electoral process. The tobacco industry and its beneficiaries in business and in government should not be allowed to make a travesty of the very noble intent of the party list election which provides an avenue for the marginalized sector of society to have a voice in government," Del Rosario said.

Meanwhile, the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA) said the intrusion of the tobacco industry in politics through fielding and funding a pseudo party list organization is "disturbing" considering the ongoing sin tax debates in the Senate.

"From being the strongest lobby in Asia, the tobacco industry in the Philippines is now positioning itself to enter government to quell efforts by health advocates to push for tobacco control efforts aimed at reducing cigarette consumption and saving kids from smoking," said Dr. Ulysses Dorotheo, project director for Southeast Asia Initiative on Tobacco Tax of SEATCA.

Dorotheo said the multi-billion peso tobacco industry is currently targeting Asia as a potential market as it loses its grips in the West where stringent tobacco control measures have been taking place.

"The Philippines having one of the highest number of smokers in Southeast Asia at 17.3 million and the highest smoking youth in the region, is an important market to the industry. The industry will do anything including undermining laws and policies just to maintain its dominance in this region," said Dorotheo.

By end of September, the Comelec is set to release the final list of accredited party list organizations qualified to run for next year's election.

Earlier this week, various doctors and health experts pushing for the immediate enactment of the controversial sin tax bill, which still remains pending before the Senate, yesterday urged the public not to vote for the so-called "anti-health" legislators and politicians.

Health Secretary Enrique Ona, Dr. Anthony Leachon, who is a consultant of the Department of Health on non-communicable disease, and former Health Secretary Dr. Alberto Romualdez all made a united call to the public as they expressed fear that the sin tax bill will be "watered down" as a result of persistent lobbying of several "anti-sin tax bill" groups in Congress.

In their bid to bring the playing game in Congress at a fair level, the health experts appealed to voters Tuesday to withdraw their support for politicians who will support the downgraded version of the bill.

"I will urge everyone not to vote for thos who don't support both the Reproductive Health Bill and the Sin Tax Bill," Dr. Romualdez told reporters during a seminar for the Media on Health Issues in Manila on Thursday.

For Dr. Leachon, he believe that the public can make a difference in making sure that the sin tax bill, which he said may help the government in its ambitious target of 100-percent, universal health care coverage by 2015, by pressing their elected representatives in Congress to pass the controversial bill.

"It is about time for everyone to think of the people they will elect and that the civil society should choose the right leaders," Dr. Leachon pointed out. "We need to pressure them to vote for the sin tax bill." (Leonard D. Postrado)