Second Wind

Father Roberto Reyes is a priest of the new school. The Post-Vatican II kind that believes leading a flock means more than just taking care of their souls.

It often also means fighting for their rights. And when fighting, Father Reyes is definitely of the old school: grim, determined and relentless.

Dubbed the “Running Priest” for running marathons as a form of protest and to raise awareness for issues like foreign debt, corruption in government and human rights, Reyes is no stranger to taking aim at big targets. He’s taken on everyone from foreign banks to two former presidents. The fight that is probably closest to his heart is against something just as powerful: the cigarette industry.

Reyes lost a brother to smoking-related lung cancer in 2004. Reyes says his brother started smoking at 14, back when people didn’t know that cigarettes could kill. He was finally able to get his brother Vincent to quit smoking but by then it was too late, he developed cancer soon after. Vincent died a few months after suing Philip Morris for damages, a case that is still pending in a Makati court.

Even as his brother’s suit waits for resolution, Reyes is back in court. This time, he’s one of around 100 people—some of them victims of laryngeal cancer, a type of cancer that is attributed to smoking 99 percent of the time—who filed a petition with a Makati court to make cigarette companies obey a Department of Health (DOH) order to put graphic health information on their products.

The Health department issued an administrative order (AO) in May that required cigarette companies to label their products with full-color pictures of the bad effects of smoking. The department order also prohibits the use of “misleading” descriptors like “mild,” light,” “ultra-light,” and “low tar.”

But cigarette companies Fortune Tobacco Corp., PMFTC Inc., Telengtan Brothers & Sons Inc., Mighty Corp. Tobacco Company and JT International (Philippines) Inc. have asked the courts to stop the department from implementing the order, which would have taken effect this month.

They say requiring graphic health warnings will force them to violate the Tobacco Regulation Act (TRA).

They say that the clause in the TRA that “no other printed warnings, except the health warning and the message required in this Section (Section 13 of RA 9211), paragraph F, shall be placed on cigarette packages” means the department should not be allowed to issue any more warnings.

Ironically, the law is entitled Tobacco Regulation Act and the safeguard clause, like all other clauses, is likely directed towards the tobacco companies to ensure that they do not put warnings weaker than the ones found in the law.
The Health department AO does not remove the requirement of the text warnings under Republic Act (RA) 9211.

Nevertheless, two injunctions have already been granted and Reyes and the other petitioners are asking the courts to affirm that the department order is legal. Reyes says that if the courts grant more writs of injunction, “At some point, people will start saying that because of some law, the DOH cannot issue orders to warn the public about melamine- or lead-laced candies. This would lead to absurd situations that would adversely affect public health!”

Reyes, who has ministered to children and young adults as a priest at the Church of the Holy Sacrifice in University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman, says the lack of graphic warnings could keep the youth from realizing that cigarettes can harm their health.

He says that although UP students might understand the text warnings that are now on cigarette packets, many might not. With the Department of Education putting functional literacy at 84 percent, the text warnings may mean little to millions of low-income Filipinos with little education. “But even those who can’t read can understand pictures,” he says.

Reyes says keeping the youth from picking up smoking would be much easier with picture warnings, a position that the World Health Organization supports.

He says he has tried to get smokers—including his brother—to quit, but that this often led to arguments. “It makes them feel that you’re judging them,” he says, and if a smoker is particularly hooked, he says you might just be wasting your time.

Better to nip smoking in the bud, he says, and he’s doing that not only by warning his flock at the Apostolic Vicariate of Puerto Princesa against the vice but also by fighting to force cigarette companies to label their products correctly.

It’s a fight that’s close to his heart. Even though he might run to raise awareness against smoking, Reyes is standing his ground.

(Published in The Manila Times, 17 October 2010)


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