Health groups ask senators to back call for sin tax hike

Doctors representing 30 medical societies nationwide, health workers and pro-sin tax hike on cigarettes yesterday appealed to the senators to support their call to raise the sin tax in cigarettes to bankroll the implementation of the Universal Health Care and reduce cases of smoking-related diseases.

Before attending the Senate ways and means committee hearing on proposed measures to increase tobacco taxes, they staged a rally in front of the Senate building after the so-called “White March to the Senate” which started at the World Trade Center on corner Roxas Boulevard and Buendia.

Leaders of the medical societies took turns in airing their hardline stance on the need to raise tobacco taxes to fund the UHC which seeks to enroll all Filipinos under a state-backed health insurance program both as paying and non-paying members.

The UHC also intends to expand the government’s free health insurance program to millions of poor Filipinos, has been sent to President Rodrigo Duterte for his signature.

While Committee chairman Senator Sonny Angara acknowledges the need to raise tobacco taxes for the UHC implementation, he, however, failed to give a commitment if it will be approved before the 17 Congress adjourns.

He said the increase would be pegged between the House watered-down version of P37.50 and P90 per pack cigarette as proposed by Senator JV Ejercito, chairman of the Senate health committee.

He added that they still need to get some documents from the DOH to determine how this agency will spend the funds from the increase cigarette tax.

“Mas mabuti na binubusisi nitong mabuti dahil ayaw nito matulad ang nangyari noon na hindi nalustay ng DOH ang buong P8 bilyon pondo para sa barangay health centers,” he said.

PhilHealth Independent Director Dr. Anthony Leachon said the Senate only has barely three session days before it adjourns to give way to the election period.

“We appeal to Senator Sonny Angara to have the Pacquiao bill, which has been certified urgent by President Duterte himself, passed at the soonest—to make sure that it will get through the amendments and plenary approval before the Senate adjourns. Failure to do so will make the bill dead in the water. It spells trouble for health and for financing the Universal Health Care, landmark legislation of this administration,” said Leachon.

Leachon, one of the convenors of the Sin Tax coalition, stressed that the UHC is at risk of not being implemented if the senators are not able to pass their tobacco tax bill in the 17th Congress.

“It is really crucial for Senator Angara to commit to a committee report that upholds the bill filed by his colleague Senator Pacquiao,” he said.

“We do not want the Senate to be responsible for the additional 200,000 new smokers among the young and the poor for every year of delay in its passage,” said Dr. Antonio Dans, academician of the National Academy of Science and Technology,” he added.

The House of Representatives passed a measly P2.50 per pack increase per year which will result in P37.50 tax per pack in July this year. According to the Department of Finance (DOF), this will bring about only P4.19 billion pesos incremental revenue this year and P4.33 billion in 2020. This is insufficient to finance UHC.

Meanwhile, the Department of Health (DOH) announced that the UHC will need P257 billion pesos in the first year. Of this amount, P153 billion pesos go to the government subsidy of the premium payment of the poor or “indirect contributory”.

During the hearing by the committee on ways and means on the tobacco tax bills, Leachon explained that the money from PhilHealth contributions, pooled funds from the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) and PAGCOR, and the 2019 budget for PhilHealth will have a total amount of only P88 billion pesos. That will leave P65 billion left without funds for 2019 alone.

Dr. Antonio Dans, also a convenor of the Sin Tax Coalition said Angara should commit to the approval of a committee report bearing a tobacco tax rate that is enough to finance his own campaign promise of Alagang Angara.

“Otherwise, everything he has been saying in his campaign advertisements and pronouncements is empty promise to the people,” Dans said.

In an earlier news report, Senate President Vicente Sotto III cited the following resources for UHC: existing sin tax incremental revenue for health, subsidy for PhilHealth premiums of sponsored members, existing budget of the Department of Health (DoH), 40% of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) charity fund, 50% of the national government share of PAGCOR earnings, and PhilHealth premium contributions.

Without the increase in tobacco tax, Dan said that the Duterte administration has very little additional money for UHC implementation this year.

“Considering the legislative calendar and the elections this year, we will be back to square one if Senator Angara does not take immediate action, New sin tax measures have to be filed again in the House of Representatives next Congress,” said Dans.

Dans also warned that this can also be a setback for senators running in the elections this May as the tobacco tax will surely become an issue. He said voters will reject the politicians responsible for not having the tobacco tax passed in this Congress. it will be up to the people to decide in May.

Lenora Fernandez, president of the Philippine College of Chest Physicians, said the increase in tobacco tax will also help avert smoking-related lung diseases which remain among the top 10 cause of deaths in the country in 2018.

She added that the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation spent around P5 billion on patients seeking help because of smoking-related diseases last year.

Meanwhile, Senator  Manny Pacquiao, who filed a bill seeking to raise tobacco tax to P60 per pack said raising tobacco taxes was the only choice for the government to increase revenue as it could no longer burden the poor with additional taxes on food and rice.

On the other hand, Sen. JV Ejercito’s Senate Bill No. 1605 seeks to increase to P90 the tax for every pack of cigarettes, but he is amenable to the P60 per pack tax proposal of Senator Manny Pacquiao.

“There is a huge need for revenues so that the Universal Health Care measure will and can be implemented sustainably. And increasing taxes on sin products is one big way of raising funds and it will even reduce cigarette smoking in the country,” he said in a statement.

Topics: “White March to the Senate” , Universal Health Care , Sonny Angara , Rodrigo Duterte
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