Congress asked to pass law on foreign grants that may affect local policies

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MANILA, Philippines — Congress should pass a law regulating foreign contributions to Philippine government agencies to prevent nongovernment organizations, such as Bloomberg Philanthropies, from influencing local policies.

The call was made in a joint statement issued on Wednesday by the Nicotine Consumers Union of the Philippines Inc. (NCUP), the Philippine E-Cigarette Industry Association (PECIA), and Vaper AKO — consumer and advocacy groups promoting tobacco harm reduction and a science-based approach to legislation.

These groups suggest passing a law similar to India’s Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), which aims “to regulate the acceptance and utilization of foreign contribution or foreign hospitality by certain individuals or associations or companies and to prohibit acceptance and utilization of foreign contribution or foreign hospitality for any activities detrimental to the national interest and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.”

The groups noted the House of Representatives conducted a public consultation on Oct. 8, 2020, on the draft guidelines for heated tobacco products (HTPs). At this hearing, a ranking official of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) admitted receiving grants from foreign anti-tobacco groups The Union and Bloomberg Initiative, both of which are promoting a prohibitive approach to tobacco control policies.

According to the group, the revelation raised questions on foreign interference with local policies and possible conflict of interest on the part of the FDA, which is tasked with regulating e-cigarettes and HTPs.

PECIA President Joey Dulay stressed that a law regulating foreign contributions would stop the flow of foreign grants meant influence national policies and regulations.

For his part, NCUP President Anton Israel pointed out India mandates NGOs to report and fully explain their use of foreign grants, particularly on how these grants promote the national interest.

NGOs are supposed to be partners of the government in nation-building — not conduits of foreign organizations, Israel said.

According to the consumer groups, India banned more than 14,500 nongovernment organizations over the past five years, including four groups that received foreign grants from Bloomberg Philanthropies of US financial billionaire Michael Bloomberg. The four groups are reportedly involved in tobacco control lobbying.

The groups added that India canceled the FCRA licenses of thousands of NGOs for reportedly acting against the country’s national interests, misreporting donations, and lobbying against an established economic activity which raises multiple economic and social concerns.

In India, they said, an NGO or academic center needs to register with the Ministry of Home Affairs to receive foreign funds and submit an annual income and expenditure statement on foreign funding.

Joaquin Gallardo, the spokesman of Vaper AKO, highlighted the case of the Philippines’ FDA receiving funds from Bloomberg.

“The Bloomberg foundations have different channels in the Philippines that promote prohibitionist policies that put at a disadvantage Filipino smokers who want to try less harmful smoke-free alternatives or noncombustible nicotine products,” Gallardo said.

He said recipients of funds from foreign organizations should fully explain how they use the money to remove the suspicion that they are trying to interfere with government policies.

Gallardo said the acceptance of grants by the FDA from Bloomberg was a serious breach of national interest because the FDA at that time was supposed to issue the implementing guidelines for the implementation of Republic Act No. 11467 and Executive Order No. 106 that allow but regulate the sale, distribution and taxation of vapor and HTPs in the Philippines which are considered better alternatives to conventional cigarettes.

“These are laws passed by Congress and signed by the President that a foreign lobby group tries to diminish by influencing the FDA in crafting the implementing guidelines. No wonder the FDA issued an initial draft that looks like it wanted to ban e-cigarettes and HTPs altogether,” Gallardo said.

“It is an example of a foreign grant from an organization that tries to influence the decision of the FDA against vaping, which has helped thousands of Filipino smokers quit,” he added.

The Union, which has co-managed the Bloomberg Initiative to Reduce Tobacco Use Grants Program, confirmed on its website that it has been working with the DOH since July 2010 to “develop and promote legislation and policies that comply with the Philippines’ commitments under the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, including Article 6 on implementing tax and price measures to reduce the demand for tobacco.”

In December 2020, Deputy House Speaker Deogracias Victor Savellano, representing Ilocos Sur’s First District and Nueva Ecija First District Rep. Estrellita Suansing, filed a resolution directing the House Committee on Good Government and Public Accountability to conduct an inquiry, in aid of legislation on the alleged questionable receipt of private funding by the FDA in exchange for the issuance of specific and predefined policies against a legitimate industry under Philippine laws.

Gallardo said the legislative inquiry would be a perfect opportunity for the House to also discuss possible legislation that would require all NGOs to submit annual reports on the receipt and utilization of foreign grants to make sure that these funds would not be used against national interest.

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