Get real
Philippine Daily Inquirer, 12 August 2017


It is very difficult to compete with a real-life cliffhanger with spouses (and the gossip circuit) exchanging barbs involving homosexuality, extramarital affairs, kleptomania, big-time corruption, and a Marcos connection. There is something in it for everyone, except for the four young sons whose world has collapsed on them. The universe will take care of them, their mother reportedly asserted. I hope she means God.

But compete we must, because there are literally millions of Filipino lives at stake, depending on present-day actions taken, or not taken, by our leaders and our society, and we have to pay more attention to these.

Take, for example, the recent news report, relegated to the inside pages, that satellite images taken late last year have belied China’s claim, unfortunately supported by our Foreign Secretary Alan Cayetano, that it had stopped reclamation work on any of the disputed islands in the South China Sea since 2015. Reader, think about it: China caught in a barefaced lie. Why Cayetano had to support China, and especially try to tone down the Asean statement against it, should be of great concern to us.

We must ask Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio to expound on this. He is the expert, accused by President Duterte of being too madaldal (talkative), I think it was, on the issue. But billions of dollars worth of resources and environmental damage and the welfare of future generations of Filipinos are involved here. The Chinese lobby is very strong, and well-funded. We have to look that gift horse in the mouth.

Then, there is the news, also relegated to the inside pages, that 80 organizations representing the health sector and civil society, led by the Philippine Medical Association no less, are petitioning the President and the Senate to use the comprehensive tax reform package (TRAIN—Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion) to address two of our most important health problems: tobacco use and malnutrition.

Their arguments are not only compelling but also evidence-based:

1. We are losing around P210 billion a year (direct and indirect costs) from smoking-caused diseases (COPD, lung cancer, strokes, heart disease), not including losses from 38 other diseases associated with smoking.

2. This is a new one, and should make President Duterte sit up and take notice. It turns out that smoking is a potential gateway to illicit drug use. Tobacco use may be responsible for one-third of ever users of illicit drugs (which means that if illicit drug users are 4.5 million, as Mr. Duterte says, their being smokers is what induced 1.5 million of them to use drugs).

3. Including the sin tax reforms in the TRAIN now will result in one million fewer smokers by 1922. Every year we delay the law, 200,000 more people start smoking, most of them in the bottom 40 percent
of income earners.

4. The revenue gains are nothing to scoff at: anywhere from P30 billion to P50 billion a year depending on the initial increases in the tax rate (increases of 60 percent, 80 percent and 100 percent, with 9 percent, 6 percent and 4 percent annual increases thereafter, respectively). Don’t get alarmed at the tax increases, because Philippine cigarette prices are apparently one of the cheapest in the world.

With these arguments, how come the sin tax isn’t being pushed in this first package of tax reforms, but, rather, has been relegated to the fifth package from the second package it was originally in?

Finance Undersecretary Karl Chua explained that they were just waiting for the results of a study being conducted on the effects of the unitary tax, which just came into effect this year. But scientists and researchers, like Dr. Antonio Dans of the University of the Philippines College of Medicine, claim that their models on smoking prevalence and revenue generation have been proven valid, based on the predictions they made in 2012. No need to wait another six months to prove this.

So what then is the real reason for the delay? Well, how about the very strong and well-funded tobacco lobby? This is what the 80-odd organizations, and the rest of us, have to contend with. Will we win, or will they, Senator Angara?