Higher cigarette prices fail to stop Filipinos from smoking

By: Jovic Yee - Inquirer.net November 05,2019 - 02:09 PM

MANILA, Philippines — The increase in the price of cigarettes has not discouraged Jerry Marso from smoking or made him consider reducing his two-pack-a-day tobacco consumption.

Instead, the 61-year-old retired contractor who has been a smoker for five decades just shifted to a less pricier local cigarette brand, which he buys for P90 a pack—P20 cheaper than the leading brand.

This is why, he said, the recommendation to the Philippines of a United Nations body to ban the sale of single-stick cigarettes to further curb the prevalence of smoking in the country “may not make a dent” since smokers “still find a way” to satisfy their craving to smoke.

Smoking still a problem

A study done by the United Nations Interagency Task Force on the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases (NCDs) found that despite the government’s efforts to reduce the number of smokers in the country by imposing a higher excise on tobacco, smoking remains a problem.

The problem is in part caused by the retail sale of cigarettes, or selling cigarettes by the stick, which allows the product to remain within the public’s reach. Currently, a smoker can get a puff for as low as P5.

“[S]ales of single-stick cigarettes remain a significant challenge and make tobacco products easily available and affordable, especially to young and poor people,” said the Philippine NCDs investment case report released last week.

The UN task force recognized that imposing higher taxes on harmful products like cigarettes was “one of the most effective measures” to reduce its consumption and at the same time improve public health and generate revenue for the government.

In fact, the recent Global Adult Tobacco Survey showed that since higher sin taxes were introduced in 2012, the prevalence of tobacco use slightly dropped to 23.8 percent in 2015 from 29.7 percent in 2009.

The government expects the number of smokers to further decline as a fresh round of higher excise on tobacco is introduced next year.

By January, each cigarette pack would be slapped with a P45 tax. A P5 increase will be implemented annually till it reaches P60 in 2023. Thereafter, a 5-percent annual increase will be imposed.

Ban on retail sale

But apart from taxation, the UN task force noted that more measures should be considered given that on average, cigarette smokers consume 11 cigarettes a day.

Such strategies include increasing the minimum age for purchasing tobacco products from the current 18 to 21 years old and banning the sale of single-stick cigarettes, especially that “smoking prevalence is still greatest among people with low income, who smoke cheap tobacco.”

While single-stick buyer Chapo Gambino, 19, also believed that banning the retail sale of cigarettes wouldn’t make much of a difference as smokers like him would just save up for it, he noted that setting a higher age limit for smoking may do the trick.

He, however, stressed that for the strategy to work, there should be strict enforcement of the regulation.

Currently, stores are forbidden to sell cigarettes to anyone below 18. But according to the 2015 Global School-Based Student Health Survey, at least 12 percent of students aged 13 to 15 are smokers.

Dr. Anthony Leachon said his group, Sin Tax Coalition, agreed with a ban on the retail sale of cigarettes, but local governments should first step up their efforts to curb smoking.

The coalition observed that President Duterte’s Executive Order No. 26, or the ban on smoking in public places, which was signed in 2017, was “not being followed strictly unlike in Davao and Palawan.”

Issue at local level

Similarly, the UN task force pointed out that the “enforcement of bans remains an issue at the local level.

For one, it said, students remain “exposed to tobacco advertising or promotions when visiting point-of-sale stores.”

It also doesn’t help that the agency in charge of tobacco control, the Interagency Committee on Tobacco, has as one of its members a representative from the tobacco industry, the task force said.

“The tobacco industry representative should be removed from the committee, consistent with the commitment of the Philippines to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and Joint Memorandum Circular No. 1 of 2010, which provides a code of conduct for all government officials in relation to the tobacco industry,” it said.

Along with binge drinking, physical inactivity and unhealthy diet, smoking is one of the major risk factors for Filipinos to get NCDs like diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular diseases and chronic respiratory ailments.

According to the UN task force’s Alexey Kulikov, the Philippines needs to ramp up its efforts against NCDs and its risk factors since these are costing the economy an estimated P756.5 billion annually, or 4.8 percent of gross domestic product.

The bulk of this amount, or P680.8 billion, is lost to the indirect costs of NCDs, such as premature death and reduced productivity due to absenteeism, Kulikov said.

Studies show that because of the high prevalence of NCDs in the country, there is a 29-percent probability that Filipinos would die from these ailments before they reach 70 years old.

Kulikov said if the Philippines would invest P10 billion in the next 15 years for tobacco control initiatives, which include mass media campaigns, an estimated 71,130 deaths due to NCDs could be averted, resulting in a productivity benefit of P97.8 billion.

Given the prevailing attitude of Filipinos toward their health, the UN task force underscored the need for the government to better communicate to the public the true costs of NCDs.

“To help stem the NCD epidemic, the Philippines must raise awareness among the public, especially among young people … A national multisectoral NCD coordination mechanism needs to be established that can bring together and strengthen existing cross-agency initiatives on NCDs,” it said.

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