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Sold down the river

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Last month—Sept. 6 at 7:01 p.m., to be precise—I received the following text message: “Recto called a secret meeting today with the tobacco companies. He’s rallying them to support the Philip Morris reco (recommendation-SCM) of 3-tiers or something close. And they were sworn to secrecy.”

The “Recto” in the text message refers, of course, to Sen. Ralph Recto, who chairs the Senate ways and means committee, and who at that time had conducted at least three hearings on the sin tax bills and had scheduled a fourth. The sin tax bills before him were the so-called “Amended Abaya” version that had been approved by the House of Representatives, another that had been proposed by Sen. Panfilo Lacson, and two that had been authored by Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago (one dealing with tobacco, and the other with both tobacco and liquor).

I immediately texted back (it was not an anonymous text message; the texter is a friend whom I hold in high esteem): “What or who is your source? Where was the secret meeting? Can I have more details?”

And the answer was: “They wer at the meeting but sworn to secrecy. I couldn’t more info. But even Drilon didn’t know abt the meeting and he’s sposed to be vice chair.”

Because I could not talk to the source, my hands were tied. I had to give Senator Recto the benefit of the doubt, but I decided that I would definitely attend the next (last) Senate hearing and, as the saying goes, see what I could see.

The last hearing was held on Sept. 20, to a packed audience, and with government big guns in attendance (Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima, Health Secretary Enrique Ona, Internal Revenue Commissioner Kim Henares), as well as representatives of the tobacco companies, the so-called Philippine Tobacco Institute or PTI (the mouthpiece of the industry, “the authoritative source of information,” having “commercial and technical expertise”), civil society organizations who are prohealth/antismoking, including a representative of the Bangkok-based South East Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (Seatca).

It was clear that the tobacco lobby was under the gun. The evidence presented by the health/finance lobby was overwhelming, from studies based on surveys here and abroad, by both economists and medical experts. For example, an updated (2011) estimate of the economic burden from smoking, was valued at P188.8 billion a year. Antonio L. Dans, MD (professor, University of the Philippines College of Medicine; president, Philippine Society of General Internal Medicine; president, Asia-Pacific Center for Evidence-Based Medicine), gave 10 reasons why this was an underestimate.

Moreover, evidence-based estimates were provided to the Recto committee on the impact of the Santiago bill, summarized thus: increases in excise tax revenues ranging from P25 billion to P54 billion (depending on specified assumptions); a drop in smoking prevalence (the percentage of Filipinos who smoke) by 8 percentage points; 4.3 million smokers quit; 130,000 deaths prevented.

Not only that, the data presented by the tobacco lobby to prove its claims were cut to bits, both orally and in writing. One particularly egregious error: The claim is that tobacco farming employment (later amended as tobacco farmers and dependents) is 840,146, as presented by the PTI. An earlier estimate, presented by Philip Morris Fortune Tobacco Corp. (PMFTC) and supposedly derived from the corporate planning department of the National Tobacco Administration in December 2009, gave that figure as 1,842,337. That’s a difference of 1 million, in case the Reader missed it.

But let us use the lower estimate, and see what liberties the tobacco lobby takes with the truth. The number of hectares in the Philippines devoted to tobacco farming is estimated at 32,235 by the Bureau of Agricultural Statistics. Now divide the number of tobacco farmers/dependents by the area planted to tobacco, and you get 26—meaning, there are 26 tobacco farmers/dependents per hectare of tobacco. Can you imagine if we used the PMFTC figure of 1.8 million people in tobacco farming? That would mean 57 people per hectare. Ridiculous, right? But the tobacco lobby continues to use the “data.”

Another blatant inaccuracy that the tobacco lobby tried to sell during the hearing was that the Thai experience in tobacco control was a failure. The Bangkok-based Seatca set the record straight in a letter to Senator Recto: In Thailand, the increase in tobacco excises resulted in an almost threefold increase in government revenues, as well as a decrease in smoking prevalence.

Before the end of the hearing, Recto asked for all parties concerned to submit their presentations and their studies to his committee.  And since the (hard) evidence was overwhelmingly in favor of the Santiago proposal, I thought that the health/finance lobby would win hands down.

I thought wrong. The report that Recto just released totally ignores the Santiago proposal (Senator Santiago was “gobsmacked”—i.e., dumbfounded, shocked), and is, as my texter warned, strikingly similar to the PMFTC recommendation, complete with the 3-tiered excise tax schedule (the Amended Abaya has two tiers, the Santiago proposal has a unitary tax). In fact, it is actually a watered-down version of the PMFTC proposal.

Recto claims his version is “reasonable, realistic, responsible.” Ridiculous. His claim will be true only if his constituency was the tobacco lobby. But he was elected by the Filipino people, whom he has just sold down the river. For shame!


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