The Sin Tax Coalition is one with the public health community in celebrating World No Tobacco Day (WNTD) 2023, with the theme: “We need food, not tobacco.”

This year’s WNTD emphasizes the need to shift away from farming tobacco and toward alternative sustainable crops amidst the global food crisis. 

Tobacco is one of the main crops in the northern regions of the Philippines. However, tobacco growing traps our farmers in a cycle of debt and poverty and imposes health risks on our tobacco growers.

During the global food crisis being exacerbated in the Philippines due to our extreme weather conditions and misguided food policy, basic food items are becoming inaccessible to ordinary Filipinos. One factor behind this food crisis is smuggling. It is therefore crucial that our policymakers make the necessary reforms to curb the rampant smuggling of goods. 

On May 2, the Senate Committee on Agriculture led by Senator Cynthia Villar discussed  Senate Bill 1962, amending the Anti Agricultural Smuggling Act of 2016.

A bill passed in the House (House Bill 3917 filed by Rep. Sandro Marcos) and pending in the Senate (Senate Bill 1812 filed by Senator Lito Lapid) taken up in the same committee hearing takes advantage of the issue of smuggling of essential agricultural goods to propose the inclusion of tobacco smuggling in the new bill. The bill raises penalties on the smuggling of tobacco, including raw tobacco, heated tobacco products, and manufactured cigarettes.

However, the tobacco smuggling bill approved by the House of Representatives and the counterpart bill in the Senate, though claiming to address illicit tobacco trade, are weak. Simply raising the penalties for smuggling tobacco products does not sufficiently address tobacco smuggling. Senate Bill 1812’s provisions focus solely on penalties without addressing the enforcement of said penalties. Penalties are only as effective as the probability of perpetrators to get caught, which can only be increased through improvements in enforcement. Raising the penalties could have the unintended consequence of encouraging bribery and collusion among smugglers and enforcers.

We call on our Senators to amend the bill to focus on improving the quality of enforcement and governance, as these factors truly affect the pervasiveness of tobacco smuggling and illicit trade. Revenue-eroding activities like illicit trade of tobacco only stand to weaken our health system and should be curbed immediately.