Rx: Drink moderately

KURO-KURO - Claude Tayag (The Philippine Star) - November 6, 2014 - 12:00am

While we’re imposing a 10-percent ad valorem tax on soft drinks, let’s DOH it with pork, with all its artery-clogging properties. Slap a 10-percent VAT on it as well, place a health warning on its label to make people eat less of it, I tell you, people  will still consume it like never before.

A hot item presently brewing in Congress is a house bill seeking to impose a 10-percent ad valorem tax (VAT) on soft drinks and all kinds of sweetened beverages.

It was filed by Nueva Ecija Rep. Estrellita Suansing, originally to be used as a rehabilitation fund for calamity victims, funding government programs on livelihood development, mass housing and infrastructure, and also as a pro-health tax measure that would curb people’s excessive intake of such sweet drinks. It had gained support from the Department of Health (DOH), Department of Finance (DOF) and other academic experts.

On top of that, Rep. Suansing is also proposing putting health warnings on softdrinks and sugar-sweetened drinks.

On the other side of the fence, Atty. Adel Tamano, VP for Public Affairs and Communications of Coca-Cola Philippines Inc., also representing the Beverage Industry Association of the Philippines (BIAP), said they are strongly opposing this “anti-poor” tax measure.

“What is being taxed is not a luxury good, unlike the things that the rich buy. Soft drinks and other beverages with sugar, these are bought by average Filipinos. Taxi drivers, jeepney drivers, ordinary workers, they use it to get energy. And, it’s a basic good. At the end of the day, this is food. Taxation will not solve obesity among the Filipinos,” he told a congressional hearing held mid-August 2014, and reiterated in newspaper and radio interviews.

He further warned that the proposal would have a negative impact on the economy, with about 25,000 people working in the beverage industry, as well as 1.2 million sari-sari stores (micro-entrepreneurs) that would be affected once Congress passes the bill.

“Instead of focusing on sugar, it is better to educate Filipinos about the benefits of a balanced, healthy diet. All kinds of food, whatever kind, should be taken in moderation. We shouldn’t talk only about sugar, we should talk also about salt, also about fat,” he said.

It was during this congressional hearing that I chanced upon a TV interview of a lady of some authority (it happened so fast I didn’t get her name) expressing her position regarding House Bill 3365. “Rice eaters that Filipinos are, the excessive intake of soft drinks and other sweetened beverages is aggravating the cases of obesity and diabetes in the country,” or something to that effect.

“Whoa! What the hell is she talking about?” triggering a thousand questions racing through my mind. “Why single out soft drinks? She’s barking up the wrong tree,” I said to myself.

In the first place, Filipinos are eating the wrong kind of rice — the white, polished rice. Eat unpolished brown rice, whose benefits I can’t extol enough in this column, and you’re already halfway to maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

Where does one draw the line? What about donuts? Made of refined white flour, refined white sugar, deep-fried in trans fat, topped with all sorts of artificial flavorings and coloring, they’re worse than soft drinks in terms of damaging one’s health. They are a health-buff nightmare, literally putting poison into one’s system. They are laden heavily with calories, but empty calories with no nutritional value, like in most processed foods. And yet Filipinos eat them up, especially the imported brands, and no one seems to notice, at least, not just yet.

And what about ice cream, all candies and chocolates, cookies and cakes, as well as with all savory processed chips and crackers?  All made with white sugar, white flour, emulsified whatever, reconstituted blah-blah, solidified ek-ek, additives, preservatives, etc., etc., etc.

And if the proponents of this bill see the sugar used in soft drinks as the main culprit of diabetes and obesity, do diet beverages have to be taxed as well?

While we’re at it, let’s DOH it with pork (pun intended, with all due apologies to former Health Secretary Sen. Juan Flavier. God bless his soul), with all its artery-clogging properties. Slap a 10-percent VAT on it as well, place a health warning on its label to make people eat less of it, I tell you, people will still consume it like never before. It’s so difficult to break people’s eating/drinking habits, good or bad.

In another news report about the same hearing, Dr. Elizabeth Caluag, head of the DOH Lifestyle Related Diseases Division, acknowledged that there is no study linking soft-drink consumption to obesity and diabetes. Though she added that the DOH supports the measure as it will “limit access” to soft drinks.

And, in yet another news report, the Philippine College of Physicians said that soft drinks are “food or beverage, unlike alcohol and cigarettes, which are considered risks to our health.” “We need to consult the membership of the Philippine College of Physicians on this matter and review the data directly linking sodas to obesity,” PCP president Anthony Leachon said. 

As to the money raised from the proposed 10-percent VAT imposition, Finance Assistant Secretary Emilia Soledad Cruz said the government hopes to generate more than P10 billion in additional revenues that will fund rehabilitation programs for calamity victims, etc., etc., etc. Will it, really? It’s so sweet (pun intended) to hear all this altruistic talk. But our government, which has more than enough funds that it doesn’t know what to do with it, created the likes of Janet Napoles. What we need are more effective watchdogs to safeguard these funds so that they don’t get lost in the mumbo-jumbo of bureaucracy, ever again. 

It is noted in the Suansing bill that the soft-drink industry is already subjected to value added tax, income tax, withholding tax, local and real property taxes, and customs duties. Taxing it further but at the expense of the consumer is rather unfair.

As Atty. Tamano has said, “Instead of focusing on sugar and soft drinks, it is better to educate Filipinos about the benefits of a balanced, healthy diet.” Amen to that. In everything we do, whether eating or drinking, moderation is the key. Even in taxing people.

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E-mail the author for comments at claudetayag@gmail.com.

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