MANILA -- The Senate approved on third and final reading the bill mandating Graphic Health Warnings (GHW) on cigarette packs.

On Tuesday, Lawmakers convened a bicameral conference committee on the graphic health warning bill to settle conflicting provisions of a bill.

Voting 18 affirmative, zero negative and zero absentions, lawmakers are now preparing for the final phase of the battle in the bicameral conference committee where representatives from the Senate and the House of Representatives will have to thresh out measures that will protect and educate the people about the dangers of cigarette smoking.

Both chambers have to ratify the bicameral report first before the final bill is transmitted to Malacañang.

The bill is expected to be passed and made into law before Congress adjourns sine die on June 11, 2014.

The Philippines is a signatory to the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which requires the implementation of "large, rotating health warnings on all tobacco product packaging and labeling."

The graphic health warning bill is seen as a necessary supporting law to the country's sin tax law as it can help bring about a further decline in the number of Filipino smokers.

In the House version, the graphic health warning will only cover less than 40 percent of the cigarette packs and be placed at the bottom.

Health advocates, however, criticize the "watered down" version of the House bill, which seeks to mandate that only 40 percent of the bottom part of cigarette packs will be covered with the image.

Senator Pia Cayetano, principal author and sponsor of the bill's Senate version, said graphic health warnings placed in front of a cigarette pack will deter smokers from "starting the vice and being addicted to it," and will encourage current smokers to quit.

She insisted that cigarette products produced abroad and imported into the country would also have to comply with packaging requirements.

The prescribed size of the warning was set following an amendment introduced by Senate Minority Leader Juan Ponce Enrile.

Under the bill, cigarette packages are prohibited from "bearing any descriptors or numbers such as, but not limited to 'low tar,' 'light,' 'ultra-light,' or 'mild' or 'extra' or 'ultra' and similar terms that claims or misleads a consumer to believe that a tobacco product or variant is healthier, safe or less harmful.

The bill also states that "no cigarette packs or other tobacco packages shall contain information that may imply that one variant or brand is healthier, less harmful or safer than the other."

Cayetano also expressed her view that the GHW requirement would not be considered a non-tariff barrier to trade under economic regimes to which the Philippines is a party, such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the Japan-Philippines Partnership Agreement (JPEPA).

Senate President Franklin Drilon, co-author and co-sponsor of the bill, said the bill is needed to address health care expenses and productivity losses due to smoking – estimated at P188 billion annually.

He also urged the proper wording of the accompanying text warning "so that an ordinary layman will understand what the picture is about – the ill-effects of smoking."

About 240 Filipinos die every day (87,600 premature deaths per year) because of major tobacco-related diseases.

Members of the bicameral committee include Senators Pia Cayetano, Alan Peter Cayetano, Vicente Tito Sotto, and Representatives Ibarra Gutierrez III, Eufranio Eriguel, Ronald Singson, Rogelio Espina, and Leah Paquiz. (Camille P. Balagtas/Sunnex)