Fighting fire with fire

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Marvin A. Tort-125


More than a year ago, I took a position in favor of taxing “vaping” or the use of electronic cigarettes, in addition to raising taxes on regular cigarettes and other tobacco products. Since then, some initiatives were started in Congress to regulate and tax the vaping industry. However, no actual regulation materialized by the time Congress adjourned for the May 2019 elections.

There is still a bit of time for legislators to consider the bills on vaping, as Congress resumes and then ends on June 7. Also, still up for consideration are proposals to raise “sin” taxes, or taxes on so-called “sin” products like regular cigarettes and tobacco. It is a short runway for solons, but the present Congress should consider the long-term positive impact of these bills.

Worse case, a new Congress opens in July. These initiatives can be resurrected by then, allowing a fresh start. Interested parties may are also allowed more time to campaign and advocate for or against the initiatives. Both the Health and Finance departments are pushing to address the negative effects particularly of smoking, and in turn, allow the government to raise revenues.

In this connection, please allow me to share with you some thoughts on the matter from former Finance Secretary Gary Teves, who continues to advocate the promotion of public health through the regulation of cigarette and tobacco sale and use via taxation, with some inputs from advocacy group Action for Economic Reform (AER).

Gary, or GBT to some of his colleagues, noted that to date, four laws are being implemented in relation to cigarette and tobacco use: Sin Tax Law of 2012 (RA 10351); Graphic Health Warnings Law of 2014 (RA 10643); Nationwide Smoking ban in 2017 (EO No. 26); and, TRAIN Law of 2017 (RA 10963), which raised cigarette taxes. However, there is still no law regulating “vaping.”

GBT also noted that the Sin Tax Law of 2012, in particular, helped bring down smoking prevalence among Filipino adults from 29% in 2012 to 22.7% in 2015, and that there are now four million fewer smokers — and at least 40,000 smoking-related deaths averted — since 2013. I am uncertain where he sourced his data, however, I reckon they come from reliable sources.

He also shared that the healthcare cost, productivity losses, and premature death losses from the top four tobacco-related diseases — lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), coronary artery disease (CAD), and cardiovascular disease (CVD) — reached an estimated P210 billion in 2015.

In terms of benefits, GBT noted, raising taxes on cigarettes helped raise the total health budget to P106 billion in 2017, of which P71.2 billion came from the incremental sin tax revenue earmarked for health. Most of the money went into improving Philhealth benefits, and raising sin taxes again now can also help fund the RA 11223 or Universal Health Care (UHC) Law.

The thing is, for taxation to remain effective as a regulatory tool for smoking, sin taxes will have to be raised progressively, as incomes rise. Otherwise, gains can be lost. In fact, while higher taxes helped bring down smoking prevalence to 22.7% in 2015 from 29% in 2012, it has again gone up slightly to 23% in 2018. We need to address this, as I believe the trend should be downward, always.

GBT also cited statistics that as of 2016, the Philippines has the second highest number of adult smokers in Southeast Asia at 16.5 million, next to Indonesia’s 65.1 million. And this brings me to the point that maybe we should now consider and promote other ways to curb smoking, in addition to raising taxes. This is where technology can help.

There have been many arguments for and against vaping or the use of electronic nicotine delivery devices in the last few years, and at this point, more independent scientific studies and research papers published on the topic can help regulators and policymakers decide on the most suitable approach to regulating particularly vaping or the use of e-cigarettes.

I believe in bringing vaping into the taxation fold, and that with proper regulation, the government might be in a better position to regulate its use and safeguard public health. Moreover, regulating vaping can add revenues to government coffers. Vaping also provides an alternative to smoking, and can thus address the slight rise in smoking prevalence in 2018.

Such an approach may be controversial, but I think it is worth the try. Beating cigarette smoking by promoting alternatives to it is using fire to fight fire. For those intending to quit, available alternatives to cigarettes — that replaces the source of nicotine — include medicine, patches, gums, inhalers, nasal sprays, and lozenges.

To date, electronic nicotine delivery systems like e-cigarettes have also become a viable alternative. I believe we should now look into this option, to further reduce smoking prevalence, as long as (1) vaping or the use of e-cigarettes are regulated by the government; (2) they are taxed; (3) that enough scientific studies will provide that people die not from nicotine but from the tar from cigarette smoking; (4) that enough scientific studies can prove that e-cigarettes are effective, safe, and viable therapy for nicotine replacement.

Some industries should be incentivized to initiate wellness programs that include smoking cessation therapies. In Baguio City, for example, city officials were quoted as saying that seven out of 10 BPO workers were smokers. Also, smoking prevalence in the city was about 34%, they said, compared to the national average of 23%.

Counseling and guidance as well as providing nicotine replacement therapies such as gums and patches can work, but I believe that vaping or the use of electronics-based therapies — under proper government regulation — might be more effective in curbing cigarette smoking among BPO workers. In this line, perhaps smoking cessation therapies can be covered by public and private health insurance.

The way this can work, companies can acquire electronic vaping devices in bulk and at a discount, and distribute these for free to smoking employees. Of course, there will be conditions to such, including quitting cigarettes over an agreed period of time. The cost of purchase can be booked under an employee wellness program, which can be designed to become tax deductible, or can be subsidized by health insurance.

The objective, of course, is to curb smoking prevalence, and to promote employee health. By curbing smoking, we also curb smoking-related illnesses and smoking-related deaths. Doing so can also minimize the health insurance costs related to smoking. More important, by investing in smoking cessation programs, companies protect their most important assets — their workers. And of course, healthy workers are healthy taxpayers.


Marvin A. Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council.