Hundreds of anti-smoking advocates on Thursday picketed a large international tobacco fair in the Philippines, a country that has drawn more attention from the industry as Western nations pile on restrictions and taxes.
A pack of cigarettes costs only about 50 cents here, and nearly one out of every three Filipinos 15 years or older smokes, according to a survey cited by the World Health Organization. The government supports legislation aimed at discouraging smoking with a new tax, but it is also trying to ramp up foreign investment to fight rampant poverty and unemployment.
Organizers of the tobacco exhibits, among the largest in the world, said city authorities waived an indoor smoking ban for delegates. Philippine President Benigno Aquino III sent a welcome message with hopes the meeting would benefit the country's economy.
One of the protest leaders, Roberto del Rosario, said the government should not have allowed the trade fair to go on.
"This business kills people," said del Rosario, president of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control Alliance-Philippines.
WHO also criticized the gathering that opened in Manila on Thursday, saying it provides a platform for the industry to promote "a deadly product in the Philippines and throughout Asia."
Media were barred from the trade exhibits; organizers said the shows were "strictly industry-only private meetings."
They said the Philippines was chosen as a venue "after months of in-depth research locations ... for a number of compelling reasons." It provides opportunities for tobacco and cigarette producers to meet suppliers of raw materials such as leaf, paper, filters and manufacturing equipment.
Dr. Shin Young-soo, WHO director for the Western Pacific, said the Philippines' hosting of the event runs counter to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which it signed. The convention requires signatories to completely ban tobacco promotion, advertising and sponsorship.
The Philippines has among Asia's highest smoking rates, and among the lowest prices for tobacco products. A pack of cigarettes costs about $1 in Laos, $3 in Malaysia, $6 in Hong Kong and $9 in Singapore.
Two former finance and two ex-health secretaries issued a statement saying that young people and the poor are encouraged to smoke and drink because cigarette and alcohol prices in the Philippines are so low.
Proponents of the proposed tax measure, which is being pushed by the health and finance departments, say it will correct the current tobacco tax structure, which favors one company that controls over 90 percent of the market, and which lacks a system to adjust the rates to inflation. The bill is still pending in Congress.
The dominant tobacco company, PMFTC Inc., is owned by Philip Morris International Inc., which bought local Fortune Tobacco Corp. in 2010.
PMFTC President Chris Nelson said the proposed taxes are "unreasonable."
"Our message is: We are here for employment, we are here for growth prospects for alcohol and tobacco and therefore, I think, obviously ... you should have reasonable and realistic (tax) increases," he said.
Despite the proposed higher taxes, he said he is upbeat about prospects for the industry in the Philippines as more farmers return to tobacco-growing.