An NGO that advocates for food sovereignty reminded lawmakers and the government that the inclusion of tobacco products among agricultural products covered under the Anti-Agricultural Smuggling Law is another misplaced remedy to the food crisis affecting the country.
“The high prices of staple food like rice, corn, chicken, fish and pork will not go down even if tobacco products are included in the revision of the anti-smuggling law. It will not make rice accessible at Php20/kilo, a commitment PBBM made during the elections,” said Lirio Cordova, Executive-Director, Rural Poor Institute for Land and Human Rights Services, Inc. (RIGHTS, Inc).
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 28,380 hectares of agricultural land is currently used to cultivate tobacco crops in the country.
“These lands could be better devoted to food crop production to contribute to food security and help address the persistent hunger in the country. What the government should do is provide more support to tobacco farmers in terms of irrigation, credit access, farm inputs, and post-harvest facilities to encourage them to shift and focus on agricultural food crops,” Cordova further said.
Several surveys from the Social Weather Station indicate the high incidence of hunger in the Philippines. In 2022, 3 million Filipino families faced hunger, 3.4 million in the 2021, and 2.5 million in 2020.
Tobacco production and consumption have caused huge environmental, health, social, and economic harms that should have prompted the government a long time ago to primarily promote food production. The persistent food crises and hunger in the country could have been minimized, if not avoided, if these huge tracts of lands occupied for tobacco were dedicated solely to food production, she further added.
Cordova also questioned who stands to benefit in the inclusion of tobacco in the bill amending the anti-smuggling law on agricultural products. The big multinational tobacco companies control the importation, production, distribution and sales of tobacco in the country. They are reaping immense profits at the expense of tobacco farmers and Filipinos who bear the brunt of the economic and health costs of tobacco. Apparently, Congress is again giving unfair favor to these big tobacco companies to tighten their stranglehold of the tobacco industry.
Furthermore, Republic Act 10845 or the Anti-Agricultural Smuggling Act of 2016, as the law states, primarily protects local production, supply, and stability of prices of food crops for food security in the country. Adding tobacco products, classified alongside agricultural food staples, is unwarranted and should not be prioritized, asserted the group RIGHTS.
More so, RIGHTS criticized lawmakers for giving special treatment to tobacco and urged them to refocus on livelihood, poverty, and food security issues. This is while the group opposed the pending bills in Congress that seek to amend the law to insert tobacco products, in the same category as food, to benefit from protections against smuggling.
“Food security is the priority in the Anti-Agricultural Smuggling Act. Tobacco does not qualify. So, to add it in the mix is unjustifiable. Our esteemed Senators and Congressmen should instead junk the pending bills and work to increase stiffer fines against arrested smugglers and ensure heightened enforcement of the law against illegal importation of agricultural food items that destroys farmers’ livelihoods and, in effect, contributes to food shortage,” said Cordova.
RIGHTS acknowledged the serious negative impacts of tobacco smuggling, and illicit tobacco trade as a whole, to the economy and public health. When more cigarettes flood the market at lower costs, tobacco becomes more accessible to adults and the youth and causes massive revenue losses in the government’s excise tax collection.
However, tobacco is wrongly placed as an amendment to RA 10845, the group reiterated.
Currently, RA 10845 penalizes the crime of economic sabotage through large-scale smuggling only of sugar, corn, pork, poultry, garlic, onion, carrots, fish, cruciferous vegetables, and rice.
“Although we agree that tobacco smuggling should be stopped, it does not belong in a law with a core focus on food security and essential food products. Agricultural food smuggling are rampant at a massive scale, that is why, right now, safeguarding our food supply matters more than tobacco. Government should stop diverting attention and efforts to protect the tobacco industry,” emphasized Cordova.
For the 1st quarter of 2023, 65 criminal complaints have been filed at the Department of Justice against smugglers, where 49 of which involve agricultural products, according to the Bureau of Customs (BOC). While for the whole year in 2022, the BOC made 137 seizures of smuggled agricultural products valued at P1.87 billion in total.
Senate Bill 1812, authored by Senator Lito Lapid is currently pending at the committee level. While its counterpart, House Bill 3917, authored by Congressman Sandro Marcos, has been approved at plenary last December 2022.
Both bills at the upper and lower house aim to include large-scale smuggling of raw and unprocessed tobacco products as a crime of economic sabotage, together with other agricultural food crops. The bills propose penalties of up to 40 years of imprisonment with no bail against tobacco smugglers who will also be slapped with a fine twice the value of the seized items on top of unpaid duties or taxes.