WHO slammed for justifying plan to stop tobacco firms from buying vaccines

WHO slammed for justifying plan to stop tobacco firms from buying vaccines

House Deputy Speaker Wes Gatchalian

MANILA — A leader of the House of Representatives has criticized the World Health Organization (WHO) for justifying the original plan of the Department of Health (DOH) to stop tobacco and infant formula manufacturers from procuring vaccines for their employees and dependents.

While the controversial provision was removed following the outcry of several lawmakers and stakeholders, the Federation of Philippines Industry, one of the country’s biggest association of manufacturers and industries, called for the immediate repeal of the rules that were used as the basis for the “unlawful” and “discriminatory” DOH proposal.

House Deputy Speaker Wes Gatchalian issued the statement after the representative of the WHO in the Philippines justified the controversial draft order of the DOH to ban certain industries “in conflict with the interest of public health” from procuring COVID-19 vaccines.

Gatchalian, who also chairs House Trade and Industry Committee, particularly noted the WHO’s “premature” assumption that tobacco and infant formula producers might use COVID-19 vaccines they plan to procure for their employees and dependents to promote their advocacy.

The controversial draft order immediately drew widespread flak from various sectors including Senate President Vicente Sotto III, Senate President Pro-tempore Ralph Recto, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon, Senator Imee Marcos, and Representatives, Jericho Nograles, Michael Defensor, Ace Barbers, Bernadette Herrera, Stella Luz Quimbo and Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin.

The DOH defended its actions citing as basis Executive Order 51 on milk products and Joint Memorandum Circular (JMC) 2010-01 which prohibits government officials and employees from interacting with the tobacco industry.

To add fuel to the fire, it was revealed that the JMC was issued in the same year the DOH and the Civil Service Commission received massive grants from the anti-tobacco NGO Bloomberg Initiative.

FPI Chairman Jesus Arranza urged the government to revisit these guidelines. “As these circulars appear to have been often misconstrued, it is high time for the CSC and the government to revisit and repeal these guidelines to ensure the avoidance of discriminatory and unjust policies emanating from them,” Arranza said adding “in this time of the pandemic, we need all the help we can get.”

WHO Representative Rabindra Abeyasinghe has publicly defended the DOH’s anti-tobacco provisions in the draft circular, which was eventually ordered removed by Malacanang following the public outcry.

Gatchalian said such assumptions by the WHO would prevent the Philippines from providing everyone equal access to the vaccines.

“My appeal to public health authorities like WHO whose expertise we greatly value in advising us policymakers and regulatory officials is to set aside certain assumptions they have about certain companies and help us as a nation make sure that no one is left behind,” Gatchalian said.

Gatchalian said nobody, including employees of tobacco companies and infant formula companies, should be left behind in the vaccination program.

“At this time when we have to win against a pandemic that has caused numerous loss of lives and continues to negatively impact the ability of the Filipino people to work, to go to school, to see their families, we need to unite and make sure no one is left behind and discriminated upon,” he said.

Gatchalian said Republic Act No. 11525 or the COVID-19 Vaccination Law allows companies to procure vaccines for the use of their employees.

The House leader said that with the scarcity of the vaccines at the moment, these companies are expected to prioritize their employees and dependent.

“Even if they had already incurred huge losses because of the pandemic, they are still prioritizing the welfare of their employees by ordering their own supply of vaccines. And by doing so, they are lessening the burden of the national government by not requesting for allocation,” he said. “It is in their best interest to protect their employees.”

Gatchalian also criticized the WHO for looking down on these companies during the pandemic.

He said while many companies have closed amid the pandemic, others remained open so they could continue to help their workforce provide for their families and pay taxes to contribute to the provision of government services.

Malacañang recently announced that all private companies, including manufacturers of tobacco, may be allowed to procure vaccines against COVID-19 through a tripartite agreement with the national government.

“We welcome the removal of the provision in the draft rules that would have restricted some companies from procuring the vaccines. We look forward to the private sector working hand-in-hand with the government to achieve herd immunity against this deadly disease,” Gatchalian said.

(AI/MTVN)

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