Various groups call for significant rise in tobacco tax to discourage youth from smoking

MANILA — Various civil society groups on Monday called for a PHP1 per cigarette stick or PHP20 per pack increase in tobacco tax every year starting 2018, to reduce smoking among youths significantly.

The call was made by HealthJustice Philippines, National Anti-Poverty Commission’s Youth and Student Sectoral Council, Philippine Cancer Society, Center for Empowerment and Development of the Elderly and Seniors (CEDES), National Anti-Poverty Commission’s Senior Citizen’s Sectoral Council, EcoWaste Coalition, ANG NARS, New Vois Association of the Philippines, and ONE for Nursing Empowerment.

“The tobacco tax is primarily a health measure. Increasing the tobacco tax is recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) as one of the most effective ways of preventing the youth from starting to smoke,” the groups said in a statement.

They said the country’s tobacco tax, which remains one of the lowest in the world, should be raised significantly to have the most substantial impact on the health of the country’s youth.

The sin tax reform law passed in 2012 introduced higher excise rates for tobacco products and paved the way for a unitary rate system by 2017. It indexed the tax rate to inflation by increasing it annually by 4 percent, regardless of the price and brand of cigarettes.

House of Representatives Bill 4144, which sought to amend the sin tax reform law by replacing the unitary system with a two-tier tobacco tax system, was however filed on Oct. 19 last year. Under the proposed change, two different tax rates will be imposed, depending on the cigarettes’ classification, with premium brands to be taxed higher than budget brands.

Civil society groups opposing the bill pointed out that it will only dilute the public health objective of the tobacco tax by encouraging smokers to shift to cheaper brands of cigarettes rather than quit smoking altogether or reduce tobacco consumption.

HB 4144 has been forwarded to the Senate, which is expected to tackle it early this year.

The latest Global Youth Tobacco Survey conducted among students aged 13-15 years in the Philippines revealed that 13.7 percent are current users of tobacco products, 8.9 percent are smokers, and 27.5 have already smoked cigarettes. Among those who have tried smoking, 36 percent are boys and 20 percent are girls.

“In-school youth usually have just a limited amount of daily allowance, which they will unlikely spend on things they can live without, like cigarettes. Higher tobacco tax will discourage them from giving up a significant chunk of their limited resources on cigarettes alone,” said Dexter Galban of One for Nursing Empowerment, a group of young nurses and nursing students in the country.

“Internal documents of tobacco companies have long ago disclosed that to the tobacco industry. The youths are no more than what they call ‘replacement smokers’. The youths have been effectively reduced to mere sources of income, their health and well-being utterly disregarded and thoughtlessly brushed aside. We should not allow these businesses to succeed in their agenda. The health and lives of the youths are more valuable than any amount of wealth that the tobacco industry can gain,” said Ninian Sumadia of the Youth and Student Sectoral Council of the National Anti-Poverty Commission.

“Children and adolescents are also more sensitive to price increases than adults, allowing price interventions to have a significant impact on this age group, according to WHO.”

“The goal of tobacco tax, being primarily a health measure, is to save lives. And it can save many lives if it is high enough to effect a change in behavior in such a way as to discourage smoking. Tobacco tax in the Philippines should be like that. It should protect the health of our youth and keep them away from cigarettes,” said the groups.

Some 240 people die of smoking-related diseases every day in the Philippines.