By Janice M. Cave
MANILA, July 27 — Health officials have expressed concern on the "aggressive" lobbying of the tobacco industry to water down the proposed sin tax law.
At a press conference, World Health Organization Representative to the Philippines Dr. Soe Nyunt-U said the tobacco industry was lobbying for a version of the sin tax law that would increase government revenue but would not raise the prices of cigarettes to a level that reduces tobacco consumption among the youth.
"It [Senate] must not allow the tobacco industry to influence policy-making. We must not allow the tobacco industry to derail efforts to get people to quit," he said.
The House of Representatives passed its version of House Bill 5727, or the sin tax reform bill, authored by Cavite Rep. Joseph Abaya last June.
Earlier, the Senate had vowed to include the measure in the priority legislative agenda.
In his State-of-the-Nation Address, President Benigno S. Aquino III had committed his support for the passage of the bill.
Department of Health Assistant Secretary Paulyn Ubial said Philippine tobacco industry lobbyists were one of the strongest in Asia.
"Tobacco lobbyists are very strong to the point that they're suing government authorities," Ubial said.
She cited a case where the Department of Health was sued for the issuing implementing rules and regulations to Republic Act 9211, or the Tobacco Regulation Act of 2003.
For her part, Dr. Susan Mercado of the World Health Organization-Western Pacific Region, said the Philippine government had yet to see the "real strength" of the tobacco lobbyists in pushing their "dirty" agenda.
"The more the government fights, the more they fight back and we have to brace for that," she said.
"What they're doing, we've observed all over the world: They manipulate science, they have secret deals, they give campaign money and these are not unique in the Philippines," she said.
While the health officials admit that they are facing an uphill battle in the passage of the bill at the Senate, Filomeno Sta. Ana of the Action for Economic Reform is optimistic that it will eventually be passed due to the Aquino administration's steadfast support.
"We have a very good chance of winning the reforms but battle in the Senate will be tougher. We hope that it will be passed because we have a reform-oriented administration and Senate is also concerned about public interests," Sta. Ana said.
Once passed into law, the sin tax is expected to raise government revenues to P33 billion on the first year of implementation alone and could go as high as P60 billion, Sta. Ana said.
Aside from raising revenues, its passage would help reduce the number of smokers.
DoH records show that there are 17 million smokers in the Philippines. This could be reduced to 15.6 million by 2016 once the bill is passed. The revenues from sin taxes will be allotted for the Universal Health Care fund.
The Philippines has one of the lowest prices of cigarettes in Asia . (PNA) RMA/JMC/rsm