Since late 2020, Philippine lawmakers have been examining the former-mayor-turned-so-called-philanthropist Michael Bloomberg’s financial influence on tobacco control policies. In an October 2020 hearing with the Philippines Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the agency was exposed for taking funding from two Bloomberg-backed nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including the Union and Bloomberg Initiative. In December, two Philippine Representatives filed a resolution seeking an investigation into the funding.
By January, 2021, international public health experts were calling for a serious inquiry into the funding. In March, in a “stunning admission,” the FDA admitted to applying for and receiving money from the Union “to hire employees to draft specific regulations on [e-cigarette and heated tobacco] products.”
Most recently, in August, the Philippine House Committee on Good Government and Public Accountability adopted a committee report that calls for the investigation referenced in December’s resolution, requiring the “Commission on Audit … to conduct a full-blown audit on the money received by the FDA from the American anti-tobacco group.”
This is promising news, but the audit should not be limited to only FDA actions on e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products. Since at least 2009, Bloomberg-funded public health NGOs have worked to demonize tobacco use in the Philippines. Interestingly, while these NGOs efforts attempt to marginalize other third-parties under the pretense of combatting tobacco industry influence, they mystifyingly embrace Bloomberg-backed tobacco control programs, which paradoxically require governments to not only still allow the sale of combustible tobacco but rely on taxes from those sales.
One overt Bloomberg-funded NGO is Vital Strategies (VS). According to the organization’s IRS tax documents, in 2017, VS spent “more than $56 million in financial or in-kind support” on tobacco control programs, including “a caravan that went city-to-city in the Philippines to build support for a tax on tobacco products.” According to VS’s 2018 Annual Report, the organization, in conjunction with the Bloomberg Initiative to Reduce Tobacco Use, helped organize a protest of 1,000 students “in response to the tobacco industry’s push to hook new customers in low-and middle-income countries.”
Vital Strategies has also worked with HealthJustice Philippines, an NGO that has received eight Bloomberg Initiative grants since 2009, and has actively promoted draconian tobacco taxes, restrictive smoking policies, and banning the sale of tobacco harm reduction products.
In May 2016, the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) and HealthJustice staged a protest of “zombies” on World No Tobacco Day “in an attempt to make Filipinos aware of the dangers of tobacco use – something that could turn them into the ‘Smoking Dead.’” Other partners in the protest included the Philippines Department of Health the SEATCA, New Vois Association of the Philippines, Framework Convention of Tobacco Control Alliance Philippines, and Vital Strategies. In a November 2016 Facebook post, the organization posted a picture of a “discussion with the communications team of Vital Strategies, Health Justice” and others.
Since Bloomberg’s financial involvement in the Southeast Asian country, access to tobacco harm reduction products has been severely restricted – despite the fact that an estimated 16 million Filipinos were smokers in 2019.
Bloomberg’s funding has helped to essentially wage a war against tobacco harm reduction in the archipelago. In November 2019, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte imposed a nationwide ban on both the use and importation of vapor products, to include authorizing the arrest of persons vaping in public. This led to a February 2020 executive order which banned vaping in public and enclosed places and imposed strict regulations on e-cigarettes. The Philippines FDA “lauded” the order.
The Philippines FDA has also been spreading misinformation on the use of e-cigarettes. In a December 7, 2019 Facebook post, the taxpayer-funded agency declared that e-cigarettes “have been proven to introduce new risk above and over those already present in traditional combustible cigarettes.” This is total contradiction to numerous public health groups, including Public Health England, the Royal College of Physicians, and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, all of which have found vapor products to be significantly less harmful than combustible cigarettes.
It is a welcome sign that Philippine lawmakers are finally investigating the FDA and the role that Bloomberg’s billions have played. Let’s hope they will examine all policies NGOs like HealthJustice and Vital Strategies have pushed upon the FDA and other agencies, and whether they are hindering thousands of Filipino adults’ access to tobacco alternatives.