Communicating about sin taxes

Campaigners have a lot to learn from the victory of the sin tax campaign of 2012. Yet few articles have been written about the fight to reform sin taxes—the gains and the losses, the backroom deals, and the trade-offs that led to a historic victory for health advocates and civil society organizations.

A significant victory of the campaign was the way the issues were communicated. Ordinary people gained access to a rather complex issue that can be easily manipulated by various interest groups. Few expected that the proponents of the new law would get across the maze of media handlers in the pockets of Big Tobacco and Liquor. Reading the broadsheets gave you an idea of who these defenders were. Some of them continue to feed drivel to newspaper readers to this day. Some continue to write hundreds of column inches on the topic—haranguing the harbingers of change to reverse a hard-fought victory.

Among civil society groups, the Action for Economic Reforms (AER) played a leading and critical role in generating the research, laying down the facts, and amplifying these in clear layman’s language. AER got support from the mainstream media, organized special events, and got the youth involved in the campaign—especially in social media. That the campaign was able to mobilize the youth—a leading consumer of cigarettes and tobacco in the Philippines— is a testament to the organizing skills of AER.

The campaign proved that language determines access and understanding. One of the steadfast proponents of change was UP Professor Solita Monsod. Her columns in the Philippine Daily Inquirer and Business World displayed the sort of intellectual honesty and analytical rigor required to win the fight. The arguments she posed were simple yet formidable that even non-economists could relate to them. She neatly deconstructed the public welfare argument and enabled many readers to access the real rationale behind the reforms.

The campaign demonstrated the need for solid policy research and technical support work, addressing the key issues like the health impact, actual and potential revenue estimates, direct and technical smuggling, including the welfare of tobacco farmers and workers. AER had a full-time contingent of experts working on the issue at the height of the campaign, and a resource persons bureau that were called upon to fight mano-a-mano on the issue in any platform—print, broadcast, and television.

A crucial ingredient was the mobilization of public and private health professionals and practitioners on an issue that AER promoted as a health issue first and foremost. Doctors and nurses played the most critical role of framing the language and discourse buttressing the campaign’s health advocacy position and provided the solid evidence base that Big Tobacco and Liquor and its media handlers could not buck.

The campaign proved that name-and-shame tactics were useful at certain conjunctures. This meant exposing the lies and half-truths peddled by defenders of the status quo, and naming them if necessary. This was critical given the stonewalling by certain legislators and the bizarre turn-around by some of the bill’s supposed sponsors.

The struggle to reform sin taxes had unintended knock-on effects. Key legislators were removed or resigned from the leadership of the powerful ways and means committees in the House and Senate. A particular proposal was shorn of appearances and dubbed as a Philip Morris Bill. At the other end, continued media attacks against the sin tax law have targeted companies who supported the bill and agreed to follow the law—including one multinational tobacco company that agreed to the reforms and by doing so is seen to have betrayed the tobacco industry. The vicious attacks against those who supported the sin tax law are a veritable case study in media bullying and a particularly graphic one.

Indeed, AER has solved a collection action problem that has bedeviled different reformers and activists within civil society, the government, the church, and business. Heat from above and heat from below combined to make the measure a priority bill—with the full backing of the President and leading members of Congress. AER forged a broad tactical alliance that included youth and students, peasants and workers, priests and nuns, artists and entertainers, bureaucrats and civil servants, politicians, and finally smokers and non-smokers. The public health dimension was never compromised. However, the scope and pace of reform was developed to march in step with the capabilities of various actors to monitor, regulate, and develop alternatives for those directly affected by the reforms.

In the end the sin tax bill delivered what AER calls the magnificent seven (7) victories of the campaign. A win for the poor, a win for the youth, a win for health, a win for the economy, a win for tobacco farmers, a win for politicians and governance, and a win for the future.

No columnist or commentator can ever take that away.

Dr. Lara is a research fellow of the London School of Economics Crisis States Research Network. This paper is an excerpt from his studies of successful communication strategies.

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