Public good versus profit

In the last two years, my husband and I lost a brother and a couple of friends to cancer of the lungs. They were all heavy smokers. I thought then that the dangers of smoking were getting alarming. But when I read about the statistics on smoking-related deaths around the world, I was stunned. The World Health Organization estimates that more than five million people die every year from smoking, both active and passive. In the United States, 440,000 people die from smoke-related illnesses annually while in France, the yearly figure is 66,000.

Like illegal drugs, cigars and cigarettes, are a menace to mankind. They have no known health benefits; they are addictive; and they claim lives. Yet, governments cannot stop the trade because tobacco manufacturers have existed for centuries and are powerful financial giants. They are, in fact, a force to reckon with if, and whenever, a threat to their industry is exerted.

And because countries around the world have been tightening the noose around them—imposing regulations and warning the consuming public against cigarettes’ hazards—the manufacturers have taken a more dangerous advertising tack. Their new advertising gimmicks target women and children and are, dangerously, more subtle and creative. According to the WHO, tobacco manufacturers have been enticing women and school children in developing countries to buy their products by using pink, perfume-shaped cigarette packaging and by giving away free school bags and pencil cases which prominently display the tobacco’s brand and logo.

This prompted WHO Director General, Dr. Margaret Chan, to say during a tobacco control conference in Uruguay in November that tobacco companies will stop at nothing in their “ruthless pursuit of wealth.” She added that the tobacco industry has “vast financial resources, lawyers, lobbyists, and no values whatsoever beyond the profit motive.”

While before, the tobacco industry would use covert and largely invisible strategies to market their products and further their financial gains, now, Chan said, tobacco manufacturers have no qualms about attacking even globally recognized agreements on tobacco control. Chan added that today, this industry which relies on addiction to earn billions, use “elaborate, sophisticated, and above all, very well-financed” schemes to subvert the efforts of the country-signatories to the WHO -Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

In the Philippines, they are making the strength of their muscles felt, too. Tobacco companies use various fronts to disparage and destroy a proposal by the Swiss firm, Sicpa Security Solutions S.A. for government to use an electronic tracking system that would monitor domestic cigar and cigarette production. The objective of the tracking system is to help the government ensure that proper excise taxes are paid and that smuggled and fake cigarettes do not penetrate and flood the market. By putting this tracking system in place, tax leakages will be plugged. More importantly, smuggled, fake (thus, more dangerous) and cheaper cigarettes will no longer be readily available. This is expected to deter potential smokers, or even those already hooked on the habit, from having easy access to cheap cigars and cigarettes.

The Philippine government loses billions of pesos in revenues each year on account of tobacco excise tax leakages. What is unfortunate is that these billions of pesos lost were meant to increase the budgets of the Department of Health, the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation and the development of tobacco-producing regions

Sicpa’s proposed security project involves the use of strip stamps in all cigarette and cigar packs and non-intrusive sensors in tobacco factories. Information gathered will then be relayed to a centralized Data Management System for real-time monitoring and tracking of tobacco production and distribution in the country. This monitoring method will enable the Philippine government to assess the exact amount of taxes that tobacco companies are supposed to pay to the government. With the prospect of suffering cuts in their net incomes once the tracking system were adopted by the government, tobacco manufacturers are bent on pushing their weight to stop it at all cost. They have, in fact, begun he smear campaign against the project.

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Plastic bags ban. Tomorrow, the 18th of January, the ban on plastic bags will take effect in Muntinlupa city. The city’s mayor, Aldrin San Pedro, deserves to be congratulated as he did not buckle down despite the protest by plastic manufacturers, claiming that the ban will force them to lay off employees. Always, a leader has to make a choice. And good leaders invariably choose that which will benefit the greatest number of people. When storm Ondoy inundated many barangays in Muntinlupa in 2009, it destroyed millions worth of properties and affected the lives of tens of thousands of residents. Mayor San Pedro said that 90 per cent of materials found obstructing drains and waterways were plastic discards and Styrofoam.

The House of Representatives and the Senate should not stall the passing of a law banning plastic bags and Styrofoam in the entire country. At the very least, plastic bags must not be given out for free but rather for a fee. This will encourage shoppers to bring reusable shopping bags. Plastics are not bio-degradable. They do not decompose but only disintegrate and multiply as litter. They can very well outlive mankind and continue to clog bodies of water and cause toxic emissions for millions of years.

The United Nations had long made a call for the total ban of plastic bags as these are the primary pollutants of oceans and bodies of water. Many species of fish, including the endangered sea turtles, and dolphins, mistake them for food and die after ingesting them. Most nations around the globe have passed laws banning free plastic shopping bags. Congress must assert its leadership now and favor the public good over the profit motives of manufacturers. The Filipino people—to whom they owe their position and power—deserve to be paid back.

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