Tobacco Taxes and Graphic Health Warnings Work: PH Global Adult Tobacco Survey 2021 shows

On 6 December 2022, the Philippine Statistics Authority and the Department of Health reported a further decline in smoking prevalence to 18.5% in 2021 from 22.7% in 2015, as part of the latest Global Adult Tobacco Survey results. Based on the most recent available data, smoking prevalence in the Philippines now ranks lower than most of its ASEAN neighbors: Indonesia (33.5%), Lao PDR (27.9%), Myanmar (26.1%), Vietnam (22.5%), Malaysia (21.3%), Brunei Darussalam (19.9%),  and Thailand (19.1%). Only Cambodia (16.9%) and Singapore (10.1%) have lower smoking prevalence. Notably, the number of Filipinos using tobacco declined from 16.7 million in 2015 to 15.1 million in 2021.

Decline in exposure to secondhand smoke

In addition, fewer Filipinos reported being exposed to secondhand smoke across settings like homes (from 34.7% to 21.8%), workplaces (from 21.5% to 12.9%), public transportation (from 37.6% to 12.2%), government buildings (from 13.6% to 6.6%), restaurants (from 21.9% to 9.2%), healthcare facilities (from 4.2% to 2.7%), schools (from 10.9 to 2.4%), and universities (from 15.1% to 3.4%).

High prices and graphic warnings helping people to quit

The proportion of current smokers surveyed, who thought about quitting as a result of higher tobacco prices, rose to around 68% (previously 55.5%). Per-pack cigarette prices in the Philippines have become more prohibitive for the youth and the poor, although per-stick prices from ambulant retailers remain universally affordable.

The proportion of current smokers who thought about quitting because of graphic health warnings remained high at 43.7% (from a previous level of 44.6%).

Wins and ways forward for tobacco control in the Philippines

While previous tobacco tax reforms balanced revenue and health gains, international evidence (from ASEAN and other countries with economic status similar to the Philippines) shows that the indirect benefits of taxation far outweigh projected revenue gains. Increasing tobacco taxes will reduce government spending to manage tobacco-caused illnesses, while raising much needed tax revenues. Tobacco taxation can have wide-ranging effects on human health, post-pandemic growth, and economic development. Considering that excise taxes on cigarettes will reach PHP 60 per pack beginning January 2023, subsequent increases, pegged at an annual rate of 5%, are unlikely to withstand inflation and must be revisited.

The persistent exposure to secondhand smoke in all places proves that designated smoking areas should be completely abolished; smoke-free policies should provide 100% cover against involuntary exposure to secondhand smoke in all places.

The small percentage of e-cigarette users in the GATS is not cause for relaxing regulations and imposing lower tax rates for electronic smoking devices, as the 2019 Global Youth Tobacco Survey showed that 14% of teens are already current e-cigarette users. Consumption of e-cigarettes by those who would not be smoking in the first place must be avoided to prevent renormalization of tobacco use.

“We congratulate the PSA and the DOH for the release of the 2021 GATS, which gives us a comprehensive snapshot of the country’s tobacco situation. While we celebrate the wins, we must not be complacent and ensure that strict regulation is implemented to protect our population, especially the youth, against these dangerous products. With the release of the 2021 GATS and the tenth anniversary of the Sin Tax Law, it is high time that the country focuses its tobacco control strategy to accelerate the achievement of a tobacco endgame,” said Dr Anton Javier, FCTC Program Officer of the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance.