It’s Yosi Kadiri day
COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - May 31, 2019 - 12:00am

Today is no smoking day all over the world. If only for 24 hours it is annually observed, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared every May 31 as World No Tobacco Day. According to the WHO, the annual campaign is an opportunity “to raise awareness on the harmful and deadly effects of tobacco use and second-hand smoke exposure, and to discourage the use of tobacco in any form.”

The focus of World No Tobacco Day 2019 is on “tobacco and lung health.” The WHO campaign seeks to increase awareness on the negative impact that tobacco has on people’s lung health, from cancer to chronic respiratory disease, the fundamental role lungs play for the health and well-being of all people. “The campaign also serves as a call to action, advocating for effective policies to reduce tobacco consumption and engaging stakeholders across multiple sectors in the fight for tobacco control,” the WHO added.

Here in the Philippines, carrying the ball for the final push for Congress approval of the proposed bill to impose higher “sin” taxes on tobacco and alcohol products are the Department of Finance (DoF) and the Department of Health (DoH).

These two government agencies have mobilized not only their respective officials but also leaders of various advocacy groups and civil society organizations to help them press the outgoing leaders and members of the 17th Congress to pass into law the proposed increase in the so-called “sin” taxes on tobacco and alcohol products before both chambers adjourn sine die on June 7.

Currently, the consolidated version of the “sin” tax reform measure under Senate Bill (SB) 2233 is pending approval at the Senate.

DoF Undersecretary Karl Kendrick Chua, assistant secretary Charade Mercado-Grande at the DoH Office of the Chief of Staff and Health Regulation Team, and Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth) vice president Israel Pragas are among the government officials in this all-out campaign to ensure swift approval of the SB 2233. If passed into law by next week – they hope – it will be the principal source of the financing gap to fully implement this year the newly signed law on Universal Health Care (UHC).

These government officials echoed this urgent call during our Kapihan sa Manila Bay last Wednesday at the Café Adriatico in Remedios Circle, Malate. In fact, the three government officials arrived late in our weekly breakfast news forum because they came all the way from the Senate where SB 2233 is still at the period of interpellations.

In apparent last-ditch effort, the Duterte administration has stepped up lobby for speedy approval of the higher “sin” taxes on tobacco products.

Speaking each at the Kapihan sa Manila Bay forum, their common warning: the implementation of the UHC law will be compromised if the new “sin” tax bill will not be approved into law this year. “UHC is a very good law and for it to be unfunded, we cannot take it,” Chua cited.

Grande disclosed the DOH is currently crafting the implementing rules and regulations (IRR) of the UHC Law. Grande also announced they will start next month public hearings on the IRR with all stakeholders to be invited to give their inputs. President Rodrigo Duterte signed UHC law last February. By September, she said, the DOH is expecting the IRR to be released for strict implementation. 

The promise of UHC, Pragas pointed out, is to provide adequate health services to all Filipinos but this cannot be done if the law is unfunded.

It would seem certain Senators, however, are not fully convinced to approve in haste SB 2233 even after President Duterte certified this as urgent administration bill. The Palace transmitted the certification to the Senate before the President flew for Japan on official trip last Tuesday.

Unperturbed by the sudden change of pace of the Senators, Chua remains optimistic for the bill and in fact, he counted there are still three session days left of the 17th Congress, excluding the Eid’l Fitr holiday. As a certified bill, Chua cited, SB 2233 will be approved on second and third reading.

Even with the proclamation of June 5 as a national holiday for the Islamic celebration of Eid’l Fitr, Chua believes there is still enough time for the outgoing 17th Congress to pass into law SB 2233. Two days later, the third and final sessions of the present Congress will wind down.

Chua admits his confidence SB 2233 will finally be approved eventually stems from the fact that House Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo already wrote Senate President Vicente Sotto III that they will adopt in full the Senate’s final version. Thus, once the Senators approve SB 2233, it will no longer go through bicameral conference committee. Thus, it effectively shortcuts the legislative process. 

Coupled with the presidential certification, Chua noted, SB 2233 will see the light of day before the 17th Congress bows out of existence next week. As of this writing, the Senate though already suspended their sessions. They will resume sessions next week to tackle anew SB 2233 to finish the period of interpellations and go through amendments.

SB 2233 seeks to approve a P60 per pack increase in the excise tax for cigarettes, with a 9 percent hike every year thereafter. But the current Senate formula of a staggered increase of P45 for the first year, with incremental increases of P5 until it reaches the P60 level, is still acceptable for both DoF and DoH. 

Since SB 2233 will still go through amendments, the DoF and DOH are also asking Congress to increase the taxes on alcohol from the current P25 per liter to at least P40 per liter and impose a unitary tax system on fermented liquors.

But aside from raising funds for UHC, the government is pushing for higher “sin” taxes to reduce cigarette consumptions in the country.

In fact, the DoH revived the “Yosi Kadiri” anti-smoking mascot first launched by the late Health Secretary Juan Flavier. As Senator, Flavier was the principal author of Republic Act 9211 or the Tobacco Regulation Act, and staunch supporter of the original “sin” taxes on cigarette, tobacco and alcoholic products.

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