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Philippines: Philip Morris enlists DOA, journalists for Bright Leaf Award

4 August 2018:

With countries passing comprehensive bans on tobacco advertising and sponsorship, tobacco industry sponsored awards for journalists have almost all disappeared. Philippines is probably the last country in Asia where Philip Morris International is still organising its Bright Leaf Award for journalists. PMI introduced this award in 2007 now continued by local company, Philip Morris Fortune Tobacco Corp Inc. (PMFTC).

This Bright Leaf Award  is specifically for agriculture journalism from which PMFTC gets its stock of feature stories and photos on tobacco growing to promote in the media all year round. The top prize for this competition includes cash (about US$950), an ipad and a four-day paid holiday to an Asian destination. In 2016, the winners, PMFTC officials, contest judges and media consorts were taken to Ha Long Bay in Vietnam.

The Philippines has a ban on tobacco sponsorship, however this award seems to circumvent the ban on tobacco promotions in the media and runs foul to the government’s efforts to get tobacco growers onto alternate livelihoods.

To ensure maximum and sustained publicity, PMFTC is using a road-show style of launch, moving from city to city holding media briefings. In 2017, PMFTC’s five-month nationwide roadshow promoted the award in over 10 key cities and provinces, culminating with the awarding ceremony in November.

In March this year, PFMTC held its media conference for journalists in a resort in Cavite. According to the promotional message, the roadshow will also visit other parts of Calabarzon, the Visayas and Mindanao after their successful launching in Bulacan. 

PMFTC appears to have enlisted the cooperation of Department of Agriculture to promote this award. Following the launch in Calabarzon in May, the DOA’s Regional Field Office of Calabarzon  promoted the Bright Leaf award by posting an article on their website – “Da Calabarzon supports the Bright Leaf Awards caravan in Laguna.”

In 2017 the Chief of the information office of the Regional Field Office 3, Department of Agriculture in Bulacan, encouraged journalists in the province to join the Bright Leaf Award, describing it as, “one of the tools in promoting agriculture as one of the pillars of a strong economy.”

In June this year, the Philippines Information Agency (PIA), which is a government information network, promoted PMFTC’s Bright Leaf award on its website. The PIA has a wide reach of the grassroots through its 16 regional offices and 78 provincial information centers. The PIA perhaps sees PMFTC as an “agricultural company” and not a tobacco company because that is what it is calling itself.

Officers of the DOA and PIA are public officials and hence are bound by the Civil Service Commission-Department of Health Joint Memorandum Circular No. 2010-01 (CSC-DOH JMC) that limits government officials interactions with the tobacco industry to supervise, control and regulate. Clearly, promoting the Bright Leaf award is none of these activities.

PMFTC releases the photo stories and articles throughout the year in the media which helps promote tobacco growing and champion the plight of tobacco growers. This strategy works well to gain approval and endorsement of groups working on developmental issues and politicians concerned about farmers and poverty. For example, Senator Cynthia Villar, known for her work among the poor, was the key note speaker at PMFTC’s 11th Bright Leaf award in 2017. 

Unfortunately, such endorsements from public figures prop-up PMFTC’s sponsorship activity long abandoned or banned in other countries. The Philippines government must stop this circumvention of the ban on tobacco sponsored activities.

Philip Morris introduced a cigarette brand, Marlboro Bright Leaf in the UK in 2009 and relaunched it 2013 as ‘Bright Leaf’. Its intended target group was from the legal age to 29-year old smokers. Philip Morris is not allowed to run Bright Leaf journalism awards in the UK.