Much more important than the millions of pesos expected from a genuine reform on the current tobacco tax structure (as proposed in a current bill being debated in the Senate) are the millions of lives that would be spared from the deadly sin of cigar and cigarette smoking.
The legislative hearings are becoming more interesting with the growing boldness of health advocates who want tougher tobacco tax measures as against the lobby of cigarette manufacturers who only cry to protect their earnings from being eroded.
During a recent hearing of the Senate Ways and Means Committee on the sin taxes, worth listening to was the statement of Elmer Rojas, who introduced himself as a global cancer ambassador, having survived the clutches of death after being diagnosed of cancer of the throat due to smoking.
It was a dramatic sight to see Rojas and several other cancer survivors, all breathing with the help of a hole in their throats, asking our legislators to wake up and heed the dangers especially to the youth that is brought about by smoking.
In the same event, health policy experts from HealthJustice underscored the need to correct the flaws in the existing sin tax law that has kept cigar and cigarette prices at its low levels and made it uncomfortably within the buying reach of students.
Only by removing the existing multi-tiered price classification system and imposing a single-tiered tax structure on retailed cigarettes will such ridiculously low price levels be removed and subsequently contribute significantly to ensuring additional funds for the government’s health care system.
“Sweet spot” is not making monopoly happy
It’s not enough, even proper, to be contented at finding that “sweet spot” in cigar and cigarette prices, something which Senator Ralph Recto chooses to interpret as finding a tax level that will keep the tobacco industry happy and never mind if smoking prevalence is not decreased.
A vice that is as deadly as smoking does not deserve to be encouraged by government in almost the same way that deadlier vices like rugby and shabu use are discouraged through stiff law enforcement laws.
In this raging sin tax debate, the principled “daang matuwid” is a taxation scheme that puts public health welfare at the forefront, never mind if cigar and cigarette manufacturers, especially one that is a monopoly, will not be happy with after losing profits.
Learning from Thailand
Our lawmakers should not be cowed by the tobacco industry’s growling and barking however loud it can be. During his visit to the Philippines in time for one of the Senate’s hearing on reforming sin taxes, Dr. Prakit Vathesatogkit, formerly a Thai senator but more known today as a tobacco control advocate, shared his country’s experience.
He related how a single or unitary taxation scheme on tobacco products imposed some two decades ago was able to keep cigarettes away from the reach of children and adolescents while raking in enough revenues for the government to fund its projects.
For Thailand, Prakit said, tax collections over one year had been adequate to raise funds for the construction of infrastructure projects like a sky train or a subway.
Furthermore, he said that the incremental tax revenues contributed to increasing health care and promotions funds, including funding communications awareness campaigns on the need to control alcohol and tobacco use.
Legislators must favor public health interest
Prakit, like many of our own pulmonary disease specialists, has been calling on government legislators to shift their thinking on tobacco control to favor public interest. Thailand, for example, supports health organizations like ThaiHealth that Prakit is actively involved in.
The Thai health champion is encouraging the Philippine government to be more pro-active at championing public health in the issue of tobacco use, just as countries like Singapore, Malaysia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand in the ASEAN region are already doing.
Rise in NCDs
This thinking comes at a most appropriate time when Dr. Antonio Dans, a professor at the University of the Philippines College of Medicine, once again pressed the alarm on the quick rise of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) among Filipinos.
NCDs are defined as illnesses that are non-infectious but may be chronic and persisting over a period of time, or may result in more rapid death if detected late. Common examples would be cancers, as well as lung and heart diseases.
A study conducted by the World Health Organization revealed that there are approximately 310,000 Filipinos who die annually due to NCDs. The sad part is that these men and women die before the age of 60, many of them at their most productive ages.
Treatment for NCDs are usually debilitating to a family’s household income, more so if it is the head of the family and sole bread winner that contracts the disease. The untimely death of those afflicted leaves behind children who cannot fend for themselves and are deprived of a better future.
According to Dans, cigarette smoking is a contributing factor to the rising cases of NCDs in the Philippines. In fact, a person who smokes heavily has more chances of contracting NCDs.
Real “sweet spot”
Dans too believes that bringing up the price of cigarettes will help dampen its use. Our lawmakers must not fear a radical tax reform’s “side-effect” of having less people buying cigarettes if it is priced even 10 times its present price.
In considering the real “sweet spot” in current deliberations by the Senate Ways and Means Committee, public health must be the primary consideration. The country needs to bring down its high smoking prevalence.