Survivors of debilitating tobacco-induced diseases locked arms in Congress today. Their agenda—urge legislators to support the prompt passage of the Aquino administration’s sin tax reform bill.

As the clock fast winds down to voting in the House Ways and Means Committee, these cancer survivors say they have taken up the fight for all Filipinos now standing at risk from the country’s looming outbreak in tobacco-induced diseases.

“We’ve heard the facts: 240 Filipinos die from smoking every day,” shared Emer Rojas of the New Vois Association of the Philippines, “But the truth is that these deaths don’t need to happen. Smoking is already the leading cause of death and disease in the Philippines.”

Rojas spoke not through the voice he was born with, but through the mechanical monotones of a voice synthesizer. A chain smoker from his teenage years onwards, Rojas outlived a bout of laryngeal cancer in 2002. Today he lives with a hole where his vocal cords should be.

“Our country has some of the cheapest cigarettes in Asia,” he said. “That’s why it’s so easy for us to start smoking, especially since we’re not fully aware of what tobacco use could do to us, our friends, and our families.”

Unbeknownst to most, the Philippines had the most affordable cigarettes in the ASEAN region in 2010. At an average of P27.72, the archipelago’s tobacco prices were easily surpassed by neighbours like Vietnam (P32.56), Cambodia (P52.36), Laos (P62.24) and Indonesia (P64.68).

This, in turn, has fostered an environment conducive to high spending on tobacco merchandise. The Philippines was Southeast Asia’s highest cigarette per capita consumer from 2002 to 2004 and 2006. On most other years from 2000-2010, it was only second to Indonesia.

“We always hear that ‘smoking kills’, ‘smoking is bad for your health.’ But these warnings are obviously not working among Filipinos, especially our youth,” opined Rojas. “Smoking in this country has only been getting worse and worse over the last few years. We need to change this!”

When chronic smokers succumb to the heavy hand of tobacco-related diseases, the financial burden on their families is catastrophic. Data from Lung Center of the Philippines in 2009 shows charity ward treatments demand at least P100, 000 in outlays for lung cancer. Chemotherapy sessions, meanwhile, can cost up to P150, 000 each.

The leakages from the family income come not only from health expenses but also from foregone household revenue. Wages are lost; workdays are skipped to tend to one’s kin— these, added to the permanent, lingering effects of illness, have ensnared countless families on a downward spiral to poverty.

“Our government urgently needs to pass the sin tax bill to halt this scenario on its tracks,” said Rojas. “This isn’t just about raising government revenues; it’s about saving fellow Filipinos.”

According to Action for Economic Reforms, about 310,000 to 1,130,000 lives will be saved if the administration’s reforms are signed into law in 2012. These are the lives, Rojas and fellow advocates argue, that will be decided by the members of the Ways and Means Committee.