Former health chiefs back raise in cigarette tax

By Leilani Junio

August 8, 2017, 8:20 pm

MANILA -- Three former Department of Health (DOH) secretaries on Tuesday united with physicians, health organizations and civil society organizations to support the inclusion of higher cigarette tax in the tax reform measure being pushed in the Senate to address two of the most pressing health problems in the country -- tobacco use and malnutrition.

In a press conference held at Annabel's Restaurant in Tomas Morato, Quezon City, petitions were signed to urge senators and the government through President Rodrigo Duterte to include cigarette tax in the deliberations on the comprehensive tax reform package.

In a presentation, former health chief, Esperanza Cabral, said tobacco exposes smokers to about 45 life-threatening diseases -- stroke, heart attack, lung cancer and chronic lung disease, to name a few.

"In addition, tobacco predisposes (one) to a major health problem: illicit drug use. Of 4.5 million Filipinos who have ever tried drugs, 1.5 million used tobacco as the gateway," Cabral said, noting that the comprehensive tax reform bill currently in the Senate should be converted to a version that is pro-poor.

"We strongly appeal the following amendments. We urge that taxes on tobacco be increased by 60 percent in 2018, and by 10 percent yearly thereafter with the following goals -- to decrease the number of current smokers from 14.5 million to 13.5 million; to reduce annual financial losses of at least PHP210 billion pesos from smoking-related diseases; to augment funds for universal health care, government infrastructure projects, and crop diversification by tobacco farmers; and to institute tobacco control as a preventive measure against the use of illicit drugs," she said.

Enrique Ona, health secretary during the previous administration, said he was glad that health care advocates came together to call the attention of the government.

"Dahil hindi number 2 or number 3 ang health. Dahil kung number one man ang infrastructure, number one man ang criminality, number one din ang health (Health is not number 2 or number 3. If infrastructure and criminality are number 1, so is health)," he said.

Ona further called on legislators to understand the dream of Universal Health Care (UHC) for the people wherein funds from the sin tax should be used to finance the health care system.

The government, he said, should also continue to find ways to improve the implementation of UHC and keep on finding other sources of funds to finance it.

Former health secretary, Dr. Jaime Galvez-Tan, expressed surprise that tobacco and alcohol taxes were not included when the Tax Reform and Acceleration and Inclusion (TRAIN) bill was proposed.

"We've contacted the Department of Finance when the TRAIN came out. I was surprised that tobacco and alcohol taxes were not there. Actually, I was telling the Finance Group that it is the more sustaining aspect of our taxes in the Philippines. We have not taxed tobacco and alcohol (in the same rate as other countries) if we compare ourselves to Hongkong, Thailand, and even Singapore," he said.

Citing an example, Galvez-Tan said in these countries, a stick of cigarette costs PhP20, compared to PHP5 in the Philippines.

He said that while they are glad that the proposed health budget for next year is PHP160 billion, much is needed to fund the health needs of a growing population.

Meanwhile, Dr. Antonio Dans, a convener of the Sin Tax Coalition and professor of the University of the Philippines College of Medicine, estimated that there will be 1 million more smokers in the country by the end of President Rodrigo Duterte's term in 2022 if the delay in the adjustment of the tobacco tax prevails.

"That's 200,000 new smokers for every year that we delay a tax adjustment on tobacco, and these new smokers will be composed of mostly rural residents -- the young and the poor," he added.

Framework Convention on Tobacco Control Alliance Philippines (FCAP) and Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) Philippines executive director, Dr. Maricar Limpin, said that the proposed TRAIN bill also includes taxation on sugar-sweetened beverages.

"We are supporting the tax on SSB because we believe that it will address the double burden on malnutrition," said Limpin, referring to obesity and chronic undernutrition.

The petitions will be forwarded to the Philippine Medical Association before they are sent to incumbent Health Secretary Dr. Paulyn Ubial, with the aim of getting her full support. (PNA)