1 January 2019
For the past 16 years, Emer Rojas, an engineer, has been the local poster boy of the ill effects of cigarette smoking.
After narrowly surviving laryngeal cancer, he now speaks in a distinct, albeit unusual, voice with the help of an electronic device as doctors had to remove his vocal chords, leaving a gaping hole in his throat.
Rojas joined other health advocates in urging legislators on New Year’s Eve to hammer out the details of measures seeking to impose higher excise on tobacco and to approve other legislative intervention promoting the health and welfare of Filipinos.
“Making cigarettes more expensive will not only help reduce the number of smoking-related diseases such as cancer and stroke … [but] also help finance the universal health care law,” he added.
Rojas, president of the New Vois Association of the Philippines, said recent studies showed that about 17 million Filipinos each smoke at least 10 sticks of cigarettes daily.
“Imagine Filipinos burning and smoking 170 million cigarettes daily. That would definitely lead to a host of health problems,” he said.
On the average, 10 Filipinos die every hour due to illnesses related to cigarette smoking, he said.
Mary Ann Mendoza, president of HealthJustice Philippines, lamented that the House version of the sin tax reform bill, which the lower chamber passed on third and final reading before the lawmakers went on Christmas break, imposed an additional a tax of just P2.50 on every pack of cigarettes.
“We sincerely hope that our lawmakers will listen to our plea and pass all prohealth measures that are still pending in Congress, starting with the increase in sin taxes,” Mendoza said in a statement.
She said two bills in the Senate, introduced separately by Senators Manny Pacquiao and JV Ejercito, proposed an excise on a pack of cigarettes higher than the levy in the version passed by the House.
Pacquiao’s Senate Bill No. 1599 wants to increase the tax to P60 per pack while Ejercito’s Senate Bill No. 1605 seeks to raise it to P90—both substantially higher than the current excise rate of P32.50 per pack.
According to Mendoza, Sen. Sonny Angara, chair of the Senate ways and means committee, had committed to discuss this month the two Senate versions of the new sin tax bill, proceeds of which would bankroll the universal health care law.
Dr. Rachel Marie Rosario, executive director of the Philippine Cancer Society, said there was a significant decrease in the number of Filipino smokers since the excise on tobacco was increased during the Aquino administration in 2012.
“Raising the price of cigarettes has proven to be a deterrent to people in the lower income group, especially teenagers and young adults, from starting the habit of smoking,” Rosario said.
The Global Adult Tobacco Survey in 2015 found that 19.3 percent of ever daily smokers quit smoking that year.
It also found that tobacco use prevalence decreased among adults from 29.7 percent in 2009 to 23.8 percent in 2015.
Most effective measure
“The increase in sin tax was the most effective measure in reducing the number of smokers in the Philippines,” Rosario said.
Mendoza said health experts projected that the House version would only raise government revenues by up to P10 billion while allowing 200,000 new smokers in the next three years.
The Senate version would provide as much as P60 billion in additional tax collection and bring down the number of Filipino smokers by as many as 2 million in 2022.
“We ask Senator Angara, who champions anticancer causes, to pass a higher tax rate compared to the one passed by the House of Representatives,” Rosario said.
“Sin tax must be an anticancer tax and not tobacco company-friendly,” she said. “Smoking causes many cancers that cost millions of pesos to treat.”
Mendoza earlier said that Health Secretary Francisco Duque III noted that the government had been spending P210 billion a year to help treat patients of smoking-related diseases.
From 2012 to 2017, the Bureau of Internal Revenue collected P512 billion in tobacco taxes, according to Action for Economic Reforms (AER).
AER senior economist Jo-Ann Diosanaw said the higher tobacco tax led to a decrease in the number of Filipino smokers by 3 million, most of whom were “prevented smokers,” or people who opted not to use cigarettes after it became more expensive.
The group said the higher tax on tobacco also helped prevent 40,000 smoking-related deaths in the country since 2013. —WITH A REPORT FROM INQUIRER RESEARCH