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No to ‘sweet tax’: Filipinos have spoken – and signed!

300,000 Filipinos have opposed the sugar-sweetened beverage tax knowing that the poor will bear the brunt of rising prices triggered by the measure. graphic by RP Ocampo

MANILA, Philippines — Filipinos have decided, and they do not want duties imposed on sugary drinks as part of the revamp of the country’s tax system through a bill that, according to critics, has certain “anti-poor” provisions.

The Senate started plenary debates on the proposed Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion Act (TRAIN), or Senate Bill 1592, on November 22 and finally approved it with substantial amendments on November 28. 

The bicameral conference committee tasked to harmonize the House of Representatives and the Senate’s versions of TRAIN began meeting last December 1. It is expected to wrap up its final report this month. 

Under the bill, the government will slap a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages as a revenue-generating and health measure — a provision that 300,000 Filipinos vehemently object to, according to a letter that the Philippine Association of Stores and Carinderia Owners’ (PASCO) sent to President Rodrigo Duterte.

PASCO said taxing sugary drinks would be a big blow to a micro-industry of poor sari-sari stores and carinderia owners who rake in 40 percent of their daily income from selling liquid refreshments.

With the poor expected to bear the brunt of rising prices triggered by the measure, PASCO, which represents 1.3 million small-time retailers across the country, launched a nationwide petition with 300,000 signatures so far to show mounting opposition on the move.

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“Paano na lamang po ang kabuhayan naming kapag naisabatas na ang dagdag buwis na ito? Nangangamba kami na tuluyan nang mawawala ang aming maliliit na negosyo,” PASCO told Duterte in their letter.

The Senate-approved version of TRAIN imposes a P4.50 per liter tax on beverages with caloric sweeteners, P4.50 per liter on those with non-caloric sweeteners and P9 per liter on those with high-fructose corn syrup.  

Exempted are milk, 3-in-1 coffee, 100-percent natural fruit and vegetable juices and beverages that use coco sugar and stevia. 

The excise tax on sugar-sweetened drinks is one of the measures under TRAIN that would offset projected foregone revenues from personal income tax reductions.

While they support steps taken by the government to bankroll its key projects, PASCO appealed to the president to spare poor micro-retailers from an undue tax burden.

They also reminded him of his campaign promise that catapulted him to power, which is to bring sweeping change on the lives of the poor.

“Batid po naming na kailangan ng ating pamahalaan ng pondo para sa iba’t-ibang proyekto para sa pag-unlad ng ating bansa. Sinusuportahan po naming ito.Ngunit panawagan naming na huwag naman po sanang sa mahihirap kunin ang pondongito,” the group said.

“Nananawagan po kami, kasama anglibu-libong miyembro ng PASCO at kapwa naming mga maralitang Pilipino na patuloy na umaasa sa inyong pamumuno, na sana ay pakinggan niyo an gaming pakiusap,” they added.

Groups such as Bantay Konsumer, Kalsada, Kuryente (BK3) have thrown their support behind PASCO’s campaign against the looming levies on sugar-sweetened beverages.

In a statement, BK3 said the government can opt to fund its big-ticket infrastructure projects by going back to the public-private-partnership model, which has earned plaudits from various international debt watchers and lenders.

The state must also focus on plugging multi-billion “revenue leaks” from smuggling, illicit trade, poor tax collection, and corruption, BK3 added.

Lastly, the consumer watchdog said, taxing sugary drinks as a health measure is “relatively weak,” arguing that data from the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) 2017 report on the state of food security and nutrition in the world show that “undernutrition and not obesity is the more serious problem in the Philippines.”

“In fact, the prevalence of undernutrition among Filipino children is 13.8 percent, higher than the prevalence of overweight children at 5 percent and the prevalence of obesity among adults at 5.2 percent,” BK3 said. 

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