Philippines: Senators told: No tobacco tax, no vote

20 January 2019
Jovic Yee

At least 30 medical associations warned they would campaign against the reelection bids of senators who would block or delay the passage of a law which would  significantly increase the tobacco tax rate and help fund the Duterte administration’s universal health care (UHC) program.

In a show of force on Friday, the heads of the various medical groups expressed concern that the UHC is now “at risk of not being sustainable” because of the absence of a measure increasing tobacco taxes, the program’s funding source.

The Department of Budget and Management estimated that, for this year alone, a total of P257.5 billion was needed for the program to be fully implemented.

P40.5B short

Assistant Finance Secretary Tony Lambino said only P217 billion was allocated in the 2019 budget for the UHC, which meant that it was still short of P40.5 billion.

Dr. Anthony Leachon, independent director of the Philippine Health Insurance Corp., said that if the Senate was unable to pass a higher tobacco tax rate in the 17th Congress, Filipinos would  be put at a disadvantage since the fund would have to be spread out.

“The geographically isolated and disadvantaged areas will be prioritized,” Leachon said.

“We called it universal health care because it was supposed to be for all,” he added.

While the House of Representatives passed in November last year a bill adjusting the tobacco tax rate, health advocates slammed this as a mere “token” since the adjustment until 2022 was only P2.50 per pack.

This meant that tobacco tax would  increase from P37.50 this year to P45 in 2022, way below the proposed P25 hike and P5 incremental increase until the end of President Duterte’s term.

Only 1 hearing

At the Senate, the committee on ways and means headed by Sen. Sonny Angara has held only a single hearing on the bill seeking a tobacco tax hike of up to P90 per pack.

He was expected to call for another hearing on Jan. 29, but the medical groups fear this may already be too late given that Congress is expected to go on break for the midterm elections on Feb. 8.

“It’s dead in the 17th Congress if it’s not passed by the first week of February. If prohealth legislators do not win, the program will be in danger,” Leachon said.

If higher tobacco tax isn’t passed before the election break, Dr. Antonio Dans, founding president of the Philippine Society of General Internal Medicine, warned reelectionist senators that they should face the consequence of their action or nonaction.

“We are watching you. We have to hold you accountable for what you say and also for what you don’t say. So, we are going to fight as a profession to make this an election issue,” Dans said.

Going by the numbers, the medical groups said they could easily cost a candidate at least five million votes.