World No Tobacco Day and smuggling

29 May 2023

By Pia Rodrigo, BusinessWorld

May 31 is World No Tobacco Day. This year, the theme of the celebration is “We need food, not tobacco.” The 2023 global campaign aims to shed light on how tobacco farmers can shift to alternative sustainable crops amidst the global food crisis.

Food shortages experienced globally due to the Russia-Ukraine conflict are exacerbated in the Philippines because of misguided food policy, poor resource allocation, subpar infrastructure, extreme weather events like typhoons, and corrupt importers and smugglers. Basic goods are becoming inaccessible to ordinary Filipinos — an October 2022 World Food Program survey showed that one out of 10 Filipino households are food insecure.

Given the struggles of our local farmers, this year’s World No Tobacco Day emphasizes the need to shift away from farming tobacco, one of the main crops in the northern regions of the Philippines.

Tobacco farming is unsustainable and traps our farmers in a cycle of debt and poverty. In an interview conducted by Action for Economic Reforms with tobacco farmers in Bacnotan, La Union, in 2021, farmers said that they are left with no choice but to farm tobacco despite the toll it takes on their health. The lack of access to water in their province makes it difficult for them to shift to planting rice.

In the 2021 interview, the farmers pledged support for now-President Bongbong Marcos. “’Yung sinasabi nila na si Marcos daw ay tutulungan niya ’yung mga magsasaka. ’Yun ang gusto namin (They say that Marcos will help the farmers. That’s what we want),” they said.

More than a year after the interview, Marcos has not only won the election but also sits as the Secretary of Agriculture. Unfortunately, he has been largely unsuccessful in alleviating the issues of the agriculture sector, as manifested by the sugar importation scandal and onion fiasco happening within the span of a few months.

Worse, high inflation persists, mainly because of high food prices arising from tight supply.

Smuggling contributes to our agriculture crisis. Our law against smuggling is weak, and enforcement is also weak. It is therefore crucial that our policymakers make the necessary reforms to curb the rampant smuggling of goods.

On May 2, the Senate Committee on Agriculture led by Senator Cynthia Villar held a hearing for Senate Bill 1962, amending the Anti Agricultural Smuggling Act of 2016.

However, a bill passed in the House (House Bill 3917 filed by Congressman Sandro Marcos) and pending in the Senate (Senate Bill 1812 filed by Senator Lito Lapid) taken up in the same committee hearing takes advantage of the issue of smuggling of essential agricultural goods to propose the inclusion of tobacco smuggling in the new bill. The bill raises penalties on the smuggling of tobacco, including raw tobacco, heated tobacco products, and manufactured cigarettes.

Tobacco smuggling, and illicit trade of tobacco as a whole, is a serious issue, mainly because it erodes the revenue the government should be receiving through tobacco taxes. The Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) Commissioner Romeo Lumagui said that for the first four months of 2023, the government’s excise tax collection had a shortfall of 20%. Tobacco products are among the commodities that are subject to excise taxes. The BIR Commissioner also said tobacco illicit trade “is a large part of that shortfall.”


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