HEALTH ADVOCATES rejoiced this week with the expeditious passage of the “sin tax” bill in the Senate. President Aquino had earlier certified it as an urgent bill due to “public necessity” to curb harmful cigarette and excessive alcohol consumption.
The bill has found a champion in the Senate in Sen. Franklin Drilon. Immediately after he had taken over as chair of the ways and means committee, he and his staff had worked overtime to give form and substance to the substitute bill he proposed. “I am willing to do the hard work and willing to do the fight because this is the good fight,” he told a gathering of doctors and healthcare professionals at the Philippine General Hospital last week.
During the event, more than 20 medical and healthcare organizations gathered at the PGH to call on the Senate to stop delaying the passage of the lifesaving bill last Nov. 15. The Senate approved it on final reading on Nov. 20.
The bill’s fate now depends on the bicameral conference committee, which is the final battlefront, or the third war, as Action for Economic Reforms (AER) coordinator Filomeno Sta. Ana metaphorically described it. “We won the war in the House. We won the war in the Senate. We have to win the war in the bicam. The bicam is the third chamber,” he said.
There’s some disparity between the target revenues proposed by both Houses, with the Senate version higher by P8.5 billion over the House version of the bill. The tax revenues in the House version is estimated to increase by 30 percent over a four-year period, with highest of P40.2 billion, while the Senate version projects a 63-percent increase within four years, peaking at P64.4 billion.
We hope the higher version prevails because we’re not talking here about revenues alone. This also translates to a likely number of lives which would be saved annually because of the reduction of the smoking rate, especially among the young. The measure is estimated to prevent 70,000 deaths a year and help subsidize the healthcare of almost a third of our population who are considered poor and unable to afford a decent healthcare.
I think the health objective of the battle has been achieved already. The financial aspect is likewise important, but actual lives which would be saved matter more.
When the bill is finally enacted into a law, the Philippines can now give the heads-up sign that it’s complying with its commitment as one of the more than 140 state-signatories to the United Nations-WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). As a State Party to the FCTC, the Philippines has pledged to integrate tobacco-control policies and measures into our national health and development strategies and programs. The future sin tax law will be a meaningful compliance of this commitment, which of course, is for our own people’s sake.
A setting for debacles
Although the fate of the “sin tax” bill is relatively clearer and brighter at this point, it is no reason for our health advocates to let their guard down. It seems like a won game, but it’s not over till it’s over. The bicam can still be a setting for debacles for those who fail to be vigilant. And I’m sure the AER and other health advocates know this very well.
It’s fair to expect the House version of the bill to be the worst-case scenario and the Senate version to be the best-case scenario, provided no other drastically negative amendments are inserted.
We just have to trust the bicam members on this since it’s a closed-door conference. It’s likely, considering next year’s elections, that “political considerations” would come into play, but we hope all the bicam members, especially the ones running for reelection, will rise above this and vote according to their conscience.
Let’s all pray that the bicam members will set aside all vested interests, and have the people’s best interest in mind when they decide on the final form of the bill.