Lawmakers asked to free kids from cigarettes

Six-year-old Alon gets a daily allowance of P20 for food and school supplies. With that she can buy either a stick of banana-cue and one cup of juice, or a small bag of chips and 10 pieces of candy, or 2 kiddie cigarette packs, with each pack containing 5 cigarette sticks.

That’s how shockingly affordable cigarettes are to kids these days. Coupled with a weak implementation of the law prohibiting sale to minors, it’s no wonder why at least one-fourth of our youth (and growing) are taking up smoking as a habit. There are cases of children starting to smoke even before they turn 10 years old, according to the 2000 Global Youth Tobacco Survey.

World Health Organization data shows that while the number of smokers in developed nations is declining, the opposite is taking place in developing countries such as the Philippines.

Philip Morris International in its May 2010 stockholders’ meeting, particularly noted the creation of Philip Morris-Fortune Tobacco Corporation, a joint venture that will hold at least 92 percent of the Philippine cigarette market creating a virtual monopoly. In 2009 alone, Philip Morris Philippines reported over 85 billion cigarette sticks sold.

“With an increasing number of deaths due to smoking, this means that their customers should be decreasing. It’s simple logic for any business to boost sales to increase their profit. The tobacco industry is no different. More sales mean they have to recruit more smokers to replace the dead ones, and where else can we find these replacement smokers than our children and youth?” said Dr. Jaime Galvez-Tan, former health secretary.

Out of the top ten causes of mortality as reported by the Department of Health, seven of them have tobacco use as a major risk factor, and these include diseases of the heart, nervous system, pulmonary system, and various cancers.

Current cigarette tax rates only charge a measly 12 centavos per stick for the cheapest cigarette brand, which barely makes a dent in cigarette prices. This explains why cigarettes in the Philippines are so cheap, and remain affordable for the experimenting youth and the poor.

“If you really want people to stop smoking, the tobacco tax system needs to be improved immediately, to raise cigarette prices high enough to prevent or even stop children, youth, and the poor from tobacco use,” continued Dr. Galvez-Tan.

The UP College of Law and HealthJustice recently came out with a policy paper on tobacco tax entitled “Taxing Health Risks,” making concrete policy recommendations on how to go about the tobacco tax reform, with the public health as its priority.

The recommendations include the removal of price classes based on 1996 net retail prices of certain cigarette brands, imposition of uniform tax rates for all cigarette brands regardless of its price class, indexation of the tax rates to inflation to prevent its erosion in relation to market prices, and earmarking a portion of the taxes for health promotion.

Alon’s grandfather, a long-time smoker died recently from lung cancer. Alon agrees with the DoH that smoking kills. She hopes that instead of cigarettes other kids like her will just buy food or books with their allowance.

Representatives Eric Singson Jr. and Victor Ortega recently came out with press statements saying that there is no need to change, improve, amend, or reform the current tobacco tax system, despite government data showing the growing health costs attributed to tobacco use.

Alon wonders out loud, “Why would anyone buy anything that will kill them?” If a first-grader like Alon understands something as simple as this, why can’t our representatives in Congress understand the urgency in passing laws that will save lives?

HealthJustice is a non-stock, non-profit organization created to fulfill the vision of bridging the gap between public health and law through policy development and research. It is committed to be the leading resource in research and capacity building for priority public health policies.

The individual members of HealthJustice have avowed advocacies for and legal expertise in tobacco control, human rights, environmental rights, and good governance. Many have been involved in legislation and public interest litigation as a means to promote legal reforms. Some have acted as advisers to national executives.

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