Cancer survivors to lawmakers: Failure to approve sin tax reform may cause cancer epidemic

MANILA – A group of cancer survivors have warned that the Philippines is in danger of facing a possible cancer epidemic unless the government reforms the sin tax imposed on cigarette products and makes smoking less accessible especially to the poor and young people.

In a news release, New Vois Association of the Philippines Inc., an organization of laryngeal cancer survivors, said that the country’s high smoking prevalence brought by aggressive tobacco marketing and the availability of cheap cigarette products could trigger a cancer epidemic that could further burden the country’s healthcare system. 

NVAP appealed to senators to approve the sin tax on tobacco products, arguing that failure to act on the 16-year delay in increasing the levy on cigarettes may push the Philippines to a catastrophic cancer epidemic in a decade or two.

“Smoking is addictive and unless you impose a high tax on tobacco products that will push prices up, more and more people will be driven to take up this deadly habit. As former smokers, we don’t want others to experience what we and our families went through battling cancer,” said Emer Rojas, president of NVAP.

Rojas, a former radio disc jockey who was diagnosed with laryngeal cancer in 2002, said smoking not only made him sick with cancer but also affected his family’s finances as he lost his job and spent more than a million pesos in surgery and medication.

Danilo Segismundo, 57, and a member of NVAP, also lost his job as a technician in Saudi Arabia when he was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx in 1999. He started smoking at 17 years old and consumed two packs of cigarettes a day until doctors had to remove his vocal cords. A former breadwinner of his family, Segismundo now relies on his sister who works in Guam to provide for his needs.

Health cost of smoking

Smoking is a major risk factor for cancer specially lung cancer which is one of the top four killers of Filipinos, according to the Department of Health. As smoking renders breadwinners jobless, their families are left to find ways to earn and pay for the sick relative’s medical needs.

“The sin tax is about the right of our people to recover from tobacco manufacturers what has cost them billions of pesos in smoking-related diseases. With P188 billion lost to smoking-related deaths every year, it’s very clear that the economic burden brought by a high tobacco consumption is heavier than the revenues generated from taxing the industry,” said Rojas.

Rojas said the burden of smoking is heavier on the poorest of the poor who, according to the Philippine Institute of Development Studies, consumes more cigarettes than the richest quintile of the population.

According to the 2012 PIDS survey, the prevalence of smoking in the country is highest among poorest Filipinos with 40% belonging to the lowest quintile while 36% come from the second lowest quintile. Meanwhile it is the opposite among the rich where 25% of smokers are considered affluent.

“It is disturbing that the poor spends more on tobacco products than on health and education. This clearly shows how intensely addictive smoking is that one would rather fail to send a kid to school or delay seeking medication than stop buying cigarettes. We hope that our senators would put premium on the health and survival of our people than get swayed by the interference of the strong tobacco lobby that portrays itself as pro-poor,” said Rojas.

The DOH estimates that around 170,000 deaths would be prevented during the first year of implementation of the sin tax while around two million smokers are expected to quit by 2016 as a result of a higher tobacco levy. There are an estimated 17.3 million smokers in the Philippines—the highest smoking prevalence in Southeast Asia.