Health advocates: Pressure needed to stop 'weak' cigarette tax bill

MANILA, Philippines – On the 4th anniversary of the passage of the landmark Sin Tax Reform Law of 2012, health advocates urged the public to pressure their lawmakers to move away from the "weak" bill seeking to impose a two-tier excise tax structure on cigarettes.

May-i Fabros of policy advocacy group Action for Economic Reforms (AER) lambasted House Bill (HB) 4144 which was already approved on 3rd and final reading at the House of Representatives just less than two months since it was filed in October.

"It was so fast, how they did it, that you'd wonder the audacity of the House leadership to make it happen that way, without any amendments," she said during a forum Tuesday, December 20. 

Under the proposed measure, a pack of cigarettes with a net retail price of P11.50 and below would be taxed P32, while cigarette packs that cost more than P11.50 would be taxed P36.

The current law mandates that a unitary tax rate of P30 be imposed on all cigarette packs – regardless of price – by 2017.

HB 4144 threatens to block the full implementation of the Sin Tax Reform Law of 2012 (Republic Act 10351) passed under the Aquino administration. (READ: Drug rehab, RH budget, Zika, and other public health newsmakers in 2016)

Dr Anthony Leachon, independent director of the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth) and a representative of the Monetary Board, said a massive information campaign is needed since there seems to be no sense of urgency on the issue right now.

Since the bill, according to advocates, was "railroaded" in the House, they say the ball game is now in the Senate.

"I think the Senate is much more independent than the Lower House, so we are hoping we can have a superior bill in the Senate," AER coordinator Filomeno Sta Ana III told Rappler.

Fabros and Leachon agreed. Fabros said they are still banking on senators to vote according to their conscience.

But for Sta Ana, pressure from the public is key moving forward, especially since this time, "the tobacco lobby…took the offensive."

"We have to rely more on popular pressure, pressure from civil society, from social media, from traditional media, public opinion, to pressure the politicians to move away from a compromised position, from weak bills, and support a pro-reform program," he added.

Duterte urged to 'shift focus'

Advocates also agreed that it's time for President Rodrigo Duterte to shift his focus from illegal drugs to the delivery of health services.

Given what happened in Congress, Sta Ana said they are "no longer sure" about their earlier assumption that Duterte will be a "firm supporter of tax reform, particularly in tobacco tax reform."

"It's an insult to the leadership to pass a bill that is not even endorsed by the Department of Finance, so either Duterte tacitly endorsed it or he's ignorant of it, the latter being dangerous – a President ignorant of what's happening in Congress," he said.

"Unfortunately, for the President, he is busy with other things. He's obsessed with the war on drugs, and that's unfortunate, because for us, it's not the real problem. He should focus on the substantive issues…. The only way for the President to move away from that excessive and unnecessary and inappropriate focus on the war on drugs is pressure from below."

Leachon said the leadership of the President is needed in this issue. He even urged the Senate leadership to talk to Duterte.

Health measure

On Tuesday, Dr Tony Dans of the University of the Philippines College of Medicine also discussed the health impact of Republic Act 10351.

Citing the National Nutrition Survey 2015, Dans said there are 4 million less smokers in the Philippines due to the sin tax law, because it has prevented new people from smoking.

At least 40,000 deaths have also been averted since 2013, he added.

Fabros said advocates need to bring health back to the center of the discussion on the sin tax law. She urged the public to rally behind a unitary tax rate of P40 by 2018.

HB 4575, as filed by Albay 2nd District Representative Joey Salceda, seeks this unitary tax rate, but unlike HB 4144, Salceda's proposal is still pending with the House committee on ways and means.

"What does a unitary tax rate of P40 mean? It means government doesn't care, as long as you're a cigarette, you'll be treated the same way because you kill and harm," Fabros explained.

She added: "There shouldn't be discrimination on brand and price of cigarettes, because there is no discrimination on who dies because of cigarettes." – Rappler.com

Jee Y. Geronimo

Jee is part of Rappler's Central Desk, handling most of the world, science, and environment stories on the site. She enjoys listening to podcasts and K-pop, watching Asian dramas, and running long distances. She hopes to visit Israel someday to retrace the steps of her Savior.

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