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There’s the Rub

Completely different angle

/ 08:02 PM October 15, 2012

The people who toiled through the night to get the sin taxes passed have every reason to be pissed off at Ralph Recto. They can only feel stabbed in the back. The difference between P60 billion and P15 billion is vast, the first being the revenue that would have been gotten from the original sin tax bill and the second from Recto’s watered-down version of it. The charge that he’s more concerned with protecting the health of the tobacco industry than that of his countrymen is believable.

Juan Flavier, Fidel Ramos’ brilliant health secretary and author of the campaign, “Yosi Kadiri,” puts it thus: “The sin tax bill as originally proposed would have moved us forward. Recto’s version keeps us all in the same place. There is a preponderance of evidence worldwide that higher taxes achieve two things: they reduce the incidence of smoking by raising prices, and they raise more revenue that we can hopefully plow into health care. If you water down the rates, the twin benefits are diminished.”

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I laud the goals of the sin tax, some of my good friends being among those who designed it. But I myself have misgivings about it. I laud its goals, but I don’t know that it is the best way to achieve them.

My first misgiving about it is that it’s not just the tobacco companies that will hurt from the new taxes, the poor will too. They are the main consumers of cigarettes and liquor. The slogans painted on the islands of España and elsewhere that shout their opposition to the sin taxes for being antipoor are not without basis.

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In fact, everyone concedes so, even the advocates of the sin taxes. But that is offset they say, one, by the health benefits to the poor, and, two, the revenue that will be plowed back to fighting poverty, in that order of priority. That is my second misgiving: I’m not so sure it will produce the health benefits it foresees even if I’m sure it will raise revenues.

I can believe that raising the prices of tobacco and liquor will reduce the incidence of smoking in particular insofar as it could lower the rate of new smokers every year. But I cannot believe, and have yet to see the studies that prove it, that raising prices will reduce smoking among those who are already smoking. It’s like saying that higher prices for shabu will lessen shabu use.

That is neither extreme nor facetious. All the methods to help you quit smoking start with one proposition: Smoking is not a habit, it is an addiction. It is as much an addiction as taking shabu or heroin, though arguably with far less immediate cataclysmic effects. That is why it is the hardest thing to quit, as any smoker will tell you. Which I can personally attest to, managing to do it way back in the early 1980s only after enduring the greatest torments. Raising the prices of cigarettes will not stop you from smoking, or reduce it. Only the fear of death will.

The premise of the sin taxes is shaky. It assumes that people make rational choices under the most irrational circumstances. It postulates a smoker (or drinker) pondering his situation and concluding, “The prices of cigarettes (or liquor) have risen by 50 percent, I will now smoke (or drink) only half of what I used to.” That reflects reality only about as much as the Marcoses reflect all that is true, good, and beautiful.

Are there other ways to curb smoking and raise revenues? Assuming to begin with that the revenues will be used to fight poverty and not just to win an election?

Yes.

As the revenue part goes, why tax the poor instead of the rich? Instead of cigarettes and liquor, why not tax to death Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs and other luxury cars? Why not tax to death yachts and private planes and unused mansions? As sin goes, I can’t imagine anything more sinful than ostentatious displays of wealth in a metropolis that teems with street children and beggars.

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As to stopping smoking, well, what is the biggest incentive to smoke and drink in this country and elsewhere? That is not the prices of cigarettes and liquor which may seem cheap to tax gatherers but are not so to the poor who patronize them. That is advertising, which conjures not just sensations of pleasurableness but images of being cool (for cigarettes) and macho (for liquor).

The generation that came before mine was particularly into both, thanks to movies, local and foreign, that featured the bida as smoking and drinking. Thanks in particular to stars like Humphrey Bogart, who was never without a cigarette in his mouth as he mouthed his lines in an iconic Bogart-y way. He himself died from cancer of the esophagus from smoking. As did a great many of the people he inspired to smoke.

In the case of drinking, culture, more than the price of Tanduay or Emperador, is a more decisive influence.  Toma  beats  jueteng  as this country’s favorite pastime, bringing with it not just pleasures of drinking, the  bidahan  along with the sense of wellbeing from alcohol, but the cultural reinforcement of being  siga. There’s an implicit contest in how high you can rack up beer cases under your table in beerhouses—“case-to-case basis,” as the joke goes.

So why not use the same advertising to discourage smoking and drinking? If government is loath to use money for it, it can always get the advertising outfits to pitch in pro bono to run ads in the media and in billboards—the way they do in the United States—that aggressively puts the fear of God, or the Grim Reaper, on smokers and drinkers? Recently the United States ran various ads on TV and the Internet showing young men and women with tubes in their throats and in horrendous states of debilitation after being ravaged by cancer in various parts of the body from smoking. If that doesn’t make you quit, I don’t know what will.

Well, I know high prices won’t.

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TAGS: Conrado de Quiros, drinking, Sin Tax Bill, smoking
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