MANILA, Philippines (Xinhua) – The government’s crucial measures aiming at reducing tobacco consumption faces challenges as the resurgence of local tobacco industry brought about huge economic gains and local tobacco firms continue to lobby.
After being cut by almost half – the tobacco-planting area went down from about 40,000 hectares in 2001 to 22,000 in 2008 the crop is enjoying a revival in the last three years.
Latest figures from the Bureau of Agricultural Statistics show that land devoted to growing tobacco surged to nearly 30,000 hectares in 2010. Tobacco planting has also expanded from the northern Philippine province of Ilocos Sur, the country’s tobacco center, to the province of Occidental Mindoro.
The tobacco-planting area grew from 250 hectares in 2008 to 262 hectares in 2010. Production increased from 32,466 tons in 2008 to 44,950 tons in 2011.
Indeed, tobacco was one of the country’s fastest growing crop last year, rising by 10.93 percent or almost twice the average 5. 78 percent growth rate for all crops, according to the BAS.
No doubt, the resurgence of the tobacco industry has created more jobs and income for the estimated 2.7 million people who are said to depend on the industry. It has even brought in more foreign exchange for the country. Tobacco exports rose from 43.6 million kilograms in 2008 to 56.94 million kilograms in 2010, generating nearly $270 million in export receipts.
The Philip Morris Philippine Manufacturing Inc.’s new factory in the province Batangas is making cigarettes not only for the Philippine market but also for export.
Even the government has benefited. Tax collections from the industry reached P25.8 billion ($60.99 million) in excise in 2010, according to the finance department.
The Philippine government ratified the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), a global treaty which aims to cut tobacco use and its huge impact on public health.
But economic gains brought by the resurgence of local tobacco industry combined with strong lobbying from tobacco firms are hurting the government’s implementation of crucial measures to reduce tobacco consumption and protect public health, according to critics of the tobacco industry.
“It’s like walking a tightrope. The government wants to get more revenues but it also needs to protect the health of its people,” economist Ruben Carlo Asuncion said.
Health Assistant Secretary Paulyn Jean Ubial said it should not be difficult for the government to decide which way to go because social and economic costs of smoking clearly outweigh the benefits.
Ubial said more than 80,000 Filipinos die each year from tobacco-related diseases. This, she said, is higher than those who die from HIV, malaria and rabies.
Citing data from a 2006 study made by the University of the Philippines, World Health Organization and Health Department, Ubial said that economic costs of smoking, including expenses for health care and costs of productivity losses can hit as much as $6 billion a year. That’s almost 100 times the nearly $61 million in excise taxes from the industry.
However, the strict implementation of tobacco control measures is hampered by the huge influence of tobacco and cigarette industry. The revival of tobacco growing and its expansion into new areas are seen as further boosting the industry’s ability to lobby and influence government policy making on tobacco control.
The combination of the country’s two biggest cigarette makers taipan Lucio Tan’s Fortune Tobacco Corp and Philip Morris International’s PMPMI into a new joint venture entity called PMFTC has not only created a huge monopoly which controls 90 percent of the domestic cigarette market but also a giant and more powerful lobby for tobacco interest.
Maricar Limpin, Executive Director of the Framework Convention Alliance on Tobacco Control Philippines, was explicit when asked what makes the implementation of tobacco control difficult in the Philippines “The problem there is the tobacco industry.”
Limpin, a member of the Inter-Agency Committee on Tobacco (IAC- T), a government-led agency that oversees the Philippine commitment to the FCTC, questioned the presence of tobacco firms, as represented by the Philippine Tobacco Institute (PTI), in the IAC-T.
“We have the tobacco industry always there to delay, to interfere, to undermine the law,” she said.
Limpin said the tobacco industry is using its huge resources to prevent the successful implementation of tobacco control.
The Department of Health’s Ubial said “the interference of the tobacco industry” resulted to several suits filed by cigarette companies that prevented the health department and local officials from implementing tobacco control measures. These include an administrative order requiring graphic health information on tobacco product packages and a resolution banning tobacco ads and promos.
Ubial also cited several anecdotal evidence showing how tobacco companies are skirting the ban against public advertisements through subtle product placements their banners found in restaurants, billiard halls, convenience stores and shopping malls; their logos emblazoned in trash bins and lamps.
It’s not hard to understand why cigarette companies are doing their best to curb tobacco control regulations in the country. The Philippines is the 15th-largest cigarette market in the world, and the second-largest in Southeast Asia. Euromonitor International pegged annual cigarette consumption at over 80 billion sticks.
Unlike the cigarette industry which is clearly focused in its goal to minimize tobacco control regulations, the government seems to be of two minds about the industry.
While the Department of Health wants to prioritize long-term public health and welfare over short-term economic gains, other government agencies such as the National Tobacco Administration ( NTA) that are part of the Inter-Agency Committee on Tobacco (IAC-T) seem to have other ideas.
The NTA’s role is to help tobacco farmers shift to other crops so they would have alternative sources of jobs and income if tobacco control regulations succeed in curbing smoking and cigarette consumption.
While saying that the agency has programs to help tobacco farmers grow other crops, NTA Administrator Edgardo Zaragoza seemed less than enthusiastic about these.
“We don’t have to tell farmers what to plant,” Zaragoza said. He added that farmers will plant crops which will offer them the best returns for their labor.
But more than dollars and cents, tobacco control advocates insist protecting public health should trump economic benefits
“You should always favor public health over other things,” said Ulysses Dorotheo, project director for the Southeast Asia Initiative on Tobacco Tax, in a forum organized by the Journalists for Nation Building Foundation Inc.
“In economics, you can lose some, you can win some. You can always get it back. But if you lose your health, it’s hard to get it back,” he said.