WHO supports excise tax reforms, says these will reduce tobacco use

Posted on March 14, 2012

THE WORLD Health Organization (WHO) has thrown its support behind the country’s excise tax reform measures, following a string of local health advocates that have called for the passage of the bill.

"Higher cigarette prices would discourage young people from starting and encourage smokers to quit," Shin Young-soo, WHO regional director for the Western Pacific, said in a statement late on Monday.

Mr. Young-soo noted that cigarettes in the Philippines are among the cheapest in Asia, with the most popular brands priced at an average of less than $0.50 per pack.

In comparison, Lao People’s Democratic Republic recently doubled its cigarette prices to $1 per pack. Malaysia charges $3, Hong Kong charges $6 and Singapore, $9.

Moreover, the excise tax only comprises 22% of the retail price of cigarettes in the country. The WHO advocates a tax of at least 70%.

"For a half century, the scientific community has generated solid and robust evidence to show how smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke directly harms health," Mr. Young-soo said.

Secondhand smoke contains nicotine, tar and more than 7,000 other chemicals, including hundreds that are toxic and about 70 that can cause cancer, he explained.

"The WHO has a very clear stance on tobacco control and is determined to help governments protect the health of their people," he added.

According to the WHO’s latest Global Adult Tobacco Survey in 2009, the Philippines has high smoking prevalence rates among both men (47.7%) and women (9%). There are an estimated 17 million smokers in the country. An average of 10 Filipinos die from a tobacco-related disease everyday.

"We realize that developing strong tobacco control policies is not simple. Nevertheless, we know that the restructuring of tobacco prices and taxes in the Philippines would significantly reduce tobacco consumption and prevent unnecessary suffering and death from cancer, heart disease, stroke, and such chronic respiratory diseases as emphysema, which, with diabetes, are now the leading causes of illness and death in the country," Mr. Young-soo said.

The Executive branch -- led by the Palace and the Department of Finance -- has been pushing for excise tax reform this year through House Bill (HB) 5727. The measure aims to increase taxes on "sin" products like alcohol and tobacco and peg the rates to inflation.

The WHO, likewise, supported HB 5727’s provision to earmark excise tax revenues for universal health care, particularly for health promotion and tobacco control.

"This would be a big boost for the government’s universal health care agenda. Other countries like Australia, the Republic of Korea and Thailand have successfully demonstrated how tobacco taxes can be used to support social development initiatives," Mr. Young-soo said.

On Monday, a string of local health advocates also backed HB 5727.

"Our country has some of the cheapest cigarettes in Asia," Emer Rojas, president of the New Vois Association of the Philippines, said in a statement.

WomanHealth Philippines also stressed that Filipinas ranked as the 16th heaviest women smokers in the world in 2009, according to the Global Adult Tobacco Survey.

Cigarette use has especially grown among the younger age groups, the group warned. Between only 2003 and 2007, the ranks of Filipina smokers aged 13-15 swelled by 50.8%.

As this developed, apprehension grew about the upcoming international tobacco expositions to be held in the Philippines this week.

ProTobEx Asia 2012 and Inter-Tabac Asia 2012 will be held in the Philippine International Convention Center (PICC) from March 15-17. The two trade shows promote tobacco products and accessories for the tobacco manufacturing and leaf sectors in the region.

"The Philippines has a vibrant tobacco industry. Tobacco has played, and continues to play, an important role in the domestic economy, earning millions of dollars for the country. There is a long and rich history of tobacco cultivation dating back hundreds of years, and the Philippines produces a wide variety of tobacco types from a strong and resilient agricultural base," the ProTobEx Web site read.

The WHO is "deeply concerned" about the event, especially as it could undermine the excise tax reform measures currently pending in the House of Representatives.

"Promotion of tobacco products at this sensitive stage of the policy debate could be detrimental to achieving public health goals. We have officially transmitted our concerns on this matter to the Department of Health," Mr. Young-soo explained.

Moreover, he reminded that the Philippines is a party to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) which obligates the country to completely ban tobacco promotion, advertising and sponsorship.

"These events provide a platform for the industry to promote a deadly product in the Philippines and throughout Asia," he said.

The WHO’s calls were echoed by the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA). The lobby group urged the Philippine government not to participate or advocate ProTobEx and Inter-Tabac Asia.

"There also should not be exemptions in taxes on the event, nor violations on anti-smoking policies as reflected in Article 8 of the WHO-FCTC, particularly of the regulations under the Pasay City Local Government Unit, where the PICC is located," SEATCA said in a statement yesterday. -- Diane Claire J. Jiao