By Philip C. Tubeza
MANILA, Philippines—The country’s health secretaries—past and present—are all solidly behind the drive to increase the sin taxes on tobacco products to avoid a projected lung cancer pandemic hitting the country in the next 10 years.
Civil Service Commission Chair and former Health Secretary Francisco Duque III said current Health Secretary Enrique Ona and previous Department of Health (DOH) chiefs Juan Flavier, Alberto Romualdez, Jaime Galvez Tan and Esperanza Cabral were in favor of increasing sin taxes to curb the number of smokers in the country while boosting government revenues.
“We don’t see this as a revenue measure but as a means to protect the health of our people. We’ve been fighting for this for years and now we’re seeing a groundswell of support. The time [to pass it] is now,” Duque said.
Duque said increasing the sin taxes on tobacco products would give a P21-billion boost to the country’s health sector, which is in dire need of funds.
“This would be of great help because it would go to PhilHealth, our public hospitals and health centers that badly need additional funding. Deaths due to tobacco-related diseases cost us P188 billion a year. That will have to be addressed,” Duque said.
But he welcomed Sen. Ralph Recto’s announcement that the Senate would still revise his initial proposal, which has been denounced by various sectors as a sell-out to the tobacco industry.
“We’ve talked to other senators and they are also willing to listen. It will depend on our health advocates, antismoking groups and the public… there is now a groundswell of support for this,” Duque said.
“I was also surprised by [Recto’s committee report]. I was expecting a bigger [revenue] target. He calls it an ‘equilibrium.’ I think the bill is still in ‘equilimbo.’ Let’s wait for our senators for the final results. We really need this,” he added.
Evita Ricafort, head of the public health think-tank Health Justice, said the sin tax bill was a “no-brainer.”
“This should be a no-brainer, but the sad fact is we are still being played for fools. Senator Recto says he is concerned about not passing the tax burden on to consumers who would end up paying more for cigarettes,” Ricafort said.
“That is the point, dear senator, we want to save Filipinos from death and illness from cigarettes. And beyond this very simple reason, genuine tobacco reform would bring in at least P60 billion to government coffers, which could then be used for health promotion and alternative livelihood for farmers,” she said.
“They can only reason out that this is a ‘balancing of interests.’ Whose interests? On one hand, you have the interests of big transnational tobacco companies to keep people addicted so they can keep raking in billions in profits,” she said.
“On the other hand, you have hundreds of thousands of Filipinos who have died and are dying because of cigarettes. So whose interests should our senators be concerned about?” Ricafort added.