Conflict of interest, unanswered questions prompt solons to suspend FDA vape and heated tobacco public consultation

Published October 11, 2020, 3:09 PM

by Manila Bulletin

Members of the House of Representatives moved to suspend the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) virtual public consultations on the guidelines for e-cigarettes and heated tobacco product (HTPs) as FDA admitted that it received funding from international anti-tobacco organizations raising questions on possible conflict of interest.

The FDA has conducted the virtual hearings on October 6 and 8, 2020 to present the proposed General Guidelines for the Regulation of E-cigarettes and Heated Tobacco Products respectively. 

Answering the query of Nueva Ecija Rep. Estrellita Suansing on whether the FDA received grants from foreign organizations, an FDA technical officer said none before revealing that he was further “instructed” by an unnamed superior not to answer the question. 

Under questioning from Suansing, a ranking FDA official later admitted that they indeed received grants from The Union and Bloomberg Initiative to Reduce Tobacco Use after the congresswoman cited a grant from Bloomberg supporting “the implementation of the National Tobacco Control Program (NTCP) under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drugs Administration.”

Deputy Speaker and Ilocos Sur Rep. Deogracias Victor Savellano requested to suspend the ongoing consultation and committed to file a resolution for a full-blown congressional investigation on a probable conflict of interest with the FDA being funded by foreign anti-tobacco groups.

“Mag file na lang tayo ng investigation regarding this matter. Parang naglolokohan lang tayo dito. It is the time to ask questions and to know who are these people. Pero itong mga to, tinatago nila,” he said.

(Let’s just file a resolution for an investigation regarding this matter. It seems we’re just fooling ourselves here. It is time to ask questions and to know who are these people. But they are hiding them.)

The FDA official revealed that the NTCP is under the Department of Health and they are also receiving grants for the project. She said the FDA received a grant from Bloomberg to strengthen its regulatory functions on tobacco control. 

On its website, the The Union stated that the organization “co-manages the Bloomberg Initiative to Reduce Tobacco Use Grants Program, which awards funds to projects delivering high-impact tobacco control interventions in low- and middle-income countries. In 2019 The Union launched the Global Implementation Programme, which supports cities to effectively implement tobacco control laws, and we are a key partner in STOP, a global tobacco industry watchdog. Both projects are also funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies.”

“Isn’t this a conflict of interest because you are funded by Bloomberg for the National Tobacco Control Program? Isn’t this a conflict of interest in coming up with this (e-cig and HTP) regulation?” Suansing said.

Suansing demanded the FDA to furnish her a copy of the grant. “This grant might have pushed the policy directions for the regulations. This is important to us,” she said.

She stressed that transparency and fairness “is very important” in crafting policies with national relevance.

Savellano also expressed his disappointment with the virtual setup of the public consultation and for not having to see the FDA personnel presenting the guidelines and answering the questions from the participants. “We have the right to know who we are talking to from the FDA,” he said.

“We are here to solve something pero eto nagtatago kayo (but here, you are hiding),” Savellano said, adding, “In my case, I would file a resolution calling for congressional investigation regarding this matter. (If) we are not answering question, may tinatago tayo,” he said, adding the “FDA must not proceed until the investigation is concluded.”