Yellow Pad


The “Dirty Ashtray Award,” as described by a caption in a photo release (Feb. 21, 2024) from the Senate of the Philippines, is “notorious,” and it is “a well-known publicly recognized award to call out those influenced by lobbying from the tobacco industry.” This notorious award is given by the Global Alliance for Tobacco Control to a government whose “public officials succumb to” the lobbying of the tobacco industry, “or when the government accepts, supports, or endorses policies or legislation in collaboration with the tobacco industry.”

The giving of the “Dirty Ashtray Award” happens during the Conference of Parties (COP) of the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). In the recent 10th COP held in Panama in the first half of February, the Philippine government became a recipient of the Dirty Ashtray award.

The Philippine government wanted to avoid receiving this award. Senior Deputy Executive Secretary Hubert Guevara, the head of the Philippine delegation to the COP10, “expressed shock at receiving the ‘Dirty Ashtray’ Award.” (From an Inquirer story, Feb. 23, 2024.)

The problem, however, was that the Philippine government set itself up to become a recipient of the Dirty Ashtray Award. Even before the COP10 commenced, the tobacco industry propaganda machine had been at work to discredit the Dirty Ashtray Award. A columnist called the Dirty Ashtray Award an “absurdity at its worst.”

In the same vein, this columnist argues that her and the tobacco industry’s concept of harm reduction through the shift from manufactured tobacco products to electronic cigarettes is being dismissed by the WHO-FCTC. It is her argument that is absurd and disingenuous. How can novel products like electronic cigarettes be a harm reduction tool when they are being sold and promoted to the youth, when they are being targeted to initiate non-smokers into smoking these new products?

And to avert a backlash from the Philippine government’s becoming a recipient of the Dirty Ashtray Award, the Philippine delegation framed its strategy as a “balanced approach,” meant to balance health and tobacco interests. Again, this is absurd, for tobacco kills, and therefore cannot be compatible with health interests.

Being an organization that has championed tobacco tax reforms and has supported previous administrations in securing a series of significant tobacco laws, Action for Economic Reforms (AER) is most disturbed over the Philippines’ receiving a “Dirty Ashtray Award” during the 10th COP of the WHO FCTC.

It is supremely ironic that the Philippines, which the international community has admired for being a global model in advancing tobacco taxation (a pillar of the FCTC’s strategy), has been treated as a party favoring tobacco interests and obstructing measures to further strengthen the Framework Convention. It is an irony that the Philippines, which has dramatically reduced smoking prevalence thanks to higher tobacco taxes, would be shamed in an international conference on tobacco control because of the contradictory actions and statements taken by some officials of the Philippine delegation.

Rather than championing public health and capitalizing on the gains that we have made on tobacco control which the international community has recognized and appreciated, some voices from the Philippine delegation acted as spokesmen for the tobacco industry. Note that the Philippine delegation attended a WHO conference on tobacco control, not an activity about tobacco promotion.

The actuations of the Philippine delegation also did harm to the current effort of the administration to burnish the Philippines’ international image to attract more investments. Receiving the Dirty Ashtray tarnishes our reputation. It is not just the civil society attendees, but, more importantly the senior representatives of governments all over the world, that witnessed the embarrassing, if not shameful, behavior of leading members of the Philippine delegation.

It is in this light that we value the privilege speech delivered by Senator Pia Cayetano, expressing her concern over the Philippines once again being the recipient of the Dirty Ashtray. In the same vein, we welcome and appreciate the Senate public hearing to conduct an inquiry into this matter.

We wish to make the following recommendations to avoid a repeat of the embarrassment that the Philippines suffered.

First, the Philippine government must always consider that the overriding concern and framework for our participation in the FCTC, in other WHO activities, and similar multilateral international hearings is public health. Tobacco control is essentially about public health. It is a great disservice for the Philippine delegation to compromise the public health framework and objectives by accommodating the interests of the tobacco industry.

A “balanced approach,” that the Philippine delegation promoted during the COP10 was but to cover or candy coat tobacco industry interests. Our government delegates to FCTC and similar conventions or summits must be made accountable to advancing and defending public health. The FCTC is not the place for the government delegation to attempt to balance health and competing commercial or (for-profit) interests.

Second, given that the FCTC is about health promotion, the Philippine delegation must be led by the Secretary of Health. Other members of the delegation must take their cues from the Department of Health on FCTC issues.

We note the unambiguous manifestation of the DoH delivered during the Senate public hearing to inquire into the issues revolving around the Dirty Ashtray Award:

“It is undisputed that tobacco kills. As the national technical authority on health, the DoH serves as the key executive government agency for promoting tobacco control in the country. The DoH hopes to lead country delegations to the COP of WHO FCTC and be granted the privilege of formulating a healthy national position on COP agenda items.”

We could have spared the Philippine delegation from controversy and shame if the Health Secretary or his designated representative had taken the lead to assert the health mandate. We could have spared the delegation head, Senior Deputy Executive Secretary Guevara, from embarrassment. To quote him: “I deeply apologize if this has brought embarrassment to you and to other countrymen who felt the same way.”

It is likewise disconcerting that the Philippine delegation to FCTC COP10 had several co-heads. Too many cooks spoil the broth. To repeat for emphasis, the Secretary of Health must be in command for the FCTC and similar functions.

The public must likewise know how members of the delegation are selected. As a case in point, we ask: How come a member of the House of Representatives (HOR) associated with the tobacco industry was selected to be a co-head of the delegation? Worse, this Congressman and other members of the delegation contradicted the DoH’s position on key issues.

Third, the Senate should inquire into tobacco industry interference, which the FCTC is empathically against. Some members of the Philippine delegation merely echoed the tobacco industry position (for example, a distorted concept of harm reduction).

A pattern can likewise be established that there is a globally coordinated effort to undermine FCTC objectives, using the Philippine delegation as a pawn. Several news articles were published before, during, and after the COP10 that propagated the tobacco industry line. Worse, there are instances that these stories quote statements from government officials when such statements do not reflect the position of the Philippine delegation.

And as mentioned earlier, the tobacco industry and its apologists had anticipated that the Philippines would receive the Dirty Ashtray Award. This would suggest that they knew beforehand that the Philippine position would contradict the positions and expectations of the global tobacco-control community. Thus, their propaganda tactics included disparaging and ridiculing the Dirty Ashtray Award.

To quote Senator Pia Cayetano, “If any of you here are in bed with the tobacco industry, that is a crime. And this committee will not stand for it. By not acting on your job, you are committing a crime. So, work with me, so we can protect the children of this country.”

Fourth, the Philippine government must insist on the correct definition and practice of harm reduction, an issue that dominated the COP10. The industry is branding or packaging the selling of electronic nicotine and non-nicotine devices (ENNDS) as harm reduction. It is far from being a harm reduction strategy, for such devices are being marketed to non-smokers, especially the youth.

We wish we did not receive the Dirty Ashtray Award. It should not have happened, and we should have been the toast of the world for our dramatic gains in tobacco taxation and reduction of tobacco smoking. Sadly, members of the Philippine delegation became the villains, dragging down with them the country’s reputation.


Filomeno S. Sta. Ana III is the executive director of Action for Economic Reforms (AER). Jessica Reyes Cantos is the AER president.