How Iloilo City complemented Sin Tax in the fight against tobacco

Upon his arrival at the Iloilo International Airport, labor leader Mario Andon listened as the flight attendant announced that Iloilo is a no smoking zone by citing Iloilo Resolution 2015-321, which declares that it is a smoke-free city and passengers are encouraged to observe the no smoking policy on public areas and conveyances.

If this announcement were done before he got ill, Mario Andon imagined himself ignoring it and would have alighted the plane to find the nearest area where smoking cigarette is allowed. Yet things had changed for him after he quitted the habit as a result of a series of pulmonary ailment which culminated to a pneumonia three years ago.

“Smoking can kill you,” he realized, after his doctor asked him if he still wanted to live. The illness is something that he attributed from his long years of smoking cigarettes which dates back 43 years ago at a young age of 12.

Smoking cigarettes had become an integral part of Mario’s daily life and work for it allowed him to endure long days and extended nights working with the urban poor sector and labor associations. According to him, the daily dose of his favorite brand simply increased as the years go by in spite of the fact that a pack already cost around P50.00 or P2.50 per stick on retail by the time he stopped in 2014.

Price of cigarette did not discourage him to stop smoking, although the P80.00 per pack today is far expensive if compared on prevailing prices when he started the habit in 1971. “The real challenge that a cigarette smoker will painfully face is the medical cost once health issues starts to present itself. I am a living example,” pointing himself.

“When I realized that I could die by lighting another stick, quitting became possible,” declared Andon.

A landmark law that saves lives

If Mario Andon didn’t stop smoking in 2013, he laughingly agreed that he could have gone down in the list of those whose lives were lost from smoking cigarettes. Unmindful of the direct impact of the passage of the Sin Tax Law on his health and behavior, Andon was happy to learn that at least he now belong among the number of cigarette smokers whose potential death were averted.

Reporting on the benefits of the Sin Tax Law, Dr. Anthony C. Leachon, independent director and member of PhilHealth’s Monetary Board, shared that approximately 32,000 potential deaths were averted as a result of the passage of the law for year 2013 alone.

Passed by Congress and signed into law as Republic Act 10352 by former President Benigno Aquino III in December 2012, the Sin Tax Law was envisioned to institute necessary reform to the outdated Philippine excise tax law.

In its report entitled: The Impact of Sin Tax Law on the Affordability of Cigarettes in the Philippines, Health Justice Philippines, Inc. explained that the law was intended to make tobacco products become less affordable, eventually bringing down the consumption levels.

From its enactment, the benefits of the law right away translated in a “reduction of prevalence among adult Filipino smokers from 31.0 percent in 2008 to 25.4 percent in 2013,” said Dr. Leachon, who is also the president of the Philippine College of Physicians Foundation.

“There are 3.2 million less smokers in the country today because of the Sin Tax Law,” highlighted Dr. Leachon, who had become known as one of the main advocates for the passage of Sin Tax Law.

In March this year, the Department of Health (DoH) reported that the Philippines hit a positive mark on tobacco control as a result of the effectiveness of government’s taxation intervention. The 2015 Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS) for the Philippines revealed a significant drop of Filipino smokers from 17 million in 2009 to 15.9 million in 2015.

The reduction among smokers brings more than one million Filipinos less vulnerable to cancer, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, said DoH officials.

But in spite of these positive developments, Health Secretary Paulyn Jean Rosell-Ubial emphasized that the Philippines still stands among countries with highest prevalence of smokers; as such, more effort is needed in order to bring down annual economic loss of approximately P188-billion from tobacco related hospitalizations for it also results to productivity losses.

Hence, the health agency stands firmly in support of all initiatives that impose smoking bans in public places all over the country.

Tobacco control through local legislation

In Iloilo City, smoking ban had become a centerpiece campaign of the local government since the passage of the first Comprehensive Anti-Smoking Ordinance in September 2006. The original legislation was sponsored by former Councilors Julienne L. Baronda and Merci Drilon-Garcia, who were young women public health advocates elected councilors to the Iloilo City Council.

In the midst of strong lobby from tobacco companies who opposed the local measure, Ordinance No. 2006-150 was passed.

In 2013, Councilor Joshua C. Alim introduced amendments in order to strengthen the legislation and to make it more responsive with the changing times thus Ordinance No. 2013-348 was passed.

“We considered the anti-smoking ordinance as a landmark local legislation, because we are all aware that it is not easy to go against the big and influential industry like the tobacco,” said Alim.

“The ordinance serves as the backbone of local law enforcement,” explained Alim, “so it needs to be updated by integrating modifications and putting additional provisions that are relevant with the times.”

Councilor Alim likewise disclosed that the Iloilo City Government was initially reluctant to step up its action for tobacco sale and use through local legislation, because the tobacco industry lobby was also aggressive against legislations that totally ban cigarette smoking in public places.

“The tobacco industry does not blink even until today and they are waiting for the proper timing in order to recover what Iloilo City has gained against the tobacco companies. We need to remain vigilant and continue our campaign,” added Alim.

The tobacco industry did not succeed in blocking the passage of local legislations for both the executive and legislative branch of the LGU were united against cigarette smoking.

The amended Comprehensive Anti-Smoking Ordinance of Iloilo City hinted a total ban on cigarette smoking and discouraged putting up of designated areas for cigarette smokers within enclosed buildings or structures. It also imposed stiffer individual and administrative penalties and institutionalized stricter mechanism for commercial establishments to comply by integrating the no smoking requirement in securing business permits or in renewal.

“If the commercial establishment is inclined to set up a designated smoking area, it needs to be in an open space and away from populated sections,” stressed Alim. 

MAJOR BATTLEGROUND. Cigarette promotion and sale may no longer be prominent in many sari-sari stores, but high demand for cigarette continues and it is considered a fast moving retail product among retail store owners. According to DoH, Social Weather Station findings reveal that 67% of smokers purchase cigarettes on a per stick basis. Admittedly, enforcing local ordinance at the barangay level remains a major challenge for Iloilo City.

In 2014, Councilor Alim pushed local tobacco control even further by passing another ordinance which prohibited tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship within Iloilo City. 

Among the prohibition of Regulation Ordinance 2014-217 are placing cinema and outdoor advertisements of tobacco products; placing, posting or distribution of advertising materials of tobacco products; placing of billboards; use of parasol and umbrella with tobacco product logo or seal in commercial establishments; placing of poster or leaflets; distribution of items with company name or logo; sponsoring events or accepting sponsorship from tobacco industry for events; and distribution, selling and promotion of tobacco products on the streets or establishments using the services of promo girls and models.

Since then Iloilo City have received both recognition and criticism, especially from visiting guests. Yet “upholding public health against the ill-impacts of tobacco is a primordial responsibility of local governments,” said Alim, “we need to set the mechanisms for tobacco control.”

Localizing national government programs

While the passage of the ordinance can be a purely local government initiative for it has powers under the Local Government Code of 1991, it is usually passed in order to complement national government programs.

Councilor Joshua C. Alim who is also a practicing lawyer again emphasized that the passage of the local ordinance on anti-smoking is a reflection of local government support to national government’s commitment being a signatory to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

“The ordinance stands in consonance with other laws like the Tobacco Regulation Act or Republic Act 9211 and the reformed Sin Tax Law,” said Alim.

Alim’s explanation is grounded from its awareness that Iloilo City is actively enforcing provisions of the Sin Tax law especially on price control of cigarettes and stands to benefit from Sin Tax through government’s health programs.

Its implementation is also intended to address local context and situations that may be present in the locality and it is also a clear manifestation of local government’s commitment to uphold public health.

“The local government is constitutionally-mandated to protect its citizens and it must exercise its function as the primary advocate for public health and safety,” expressed Alim.

National government programs are better reflected at the local level once it is localized by way of passing local ordinances and by enforcing it.

Enforcement is a governance exercise

“At the heart of local governance is a fair and consistent enforcement of local ordinances on anti-smoking,” conveyed Iñigo Garingalao, director of the Iloilo City Anti-Smoking Task Force or ICAST.

The ICAST is at the frontline of local ordinance enforcement. Garingalao supervises ICAST’s operations and activities and its work covers the following: monitoring the compliance of commercial establishments; inspection and placement of warning signage; conduct of lectures and popular education campaigns to schools and different groups; holding meetings with other stakeholders for updating and for gathering support, conduct of orientation for event organizers, and media work.

“We cover a range of activities that are consistent with the enforcement of the local ordinance. The effort is to ensure that the ordinance is properly implemented,” said Garingalao, “and the work entails that we are present on the ground most of the time to watch over the city streets and apprehend violators of the ordinance.”

“The personnel of ICAST would encounter an average of 25 to 30 individuals violating the Anti-Smoking Ordinance,” he revealed, “this, in spite of intensified pubic campaign and even with highly visible information materials positioned in public places.”

“We do not consider our work perfect. This is the reason why we constantly remind our personnel and agents to become mindful of proper attitude and by following procedures,” explained Garingalao.

But consistent campaign and enforcement pays-off as indicated by the reduction of violators.

In 2015, consolidated data by ICAST showed a total of 5,425 violators comprised of civilians, students, public utility drivers, and even minors. It lowered down to 3,971 violators in 2016. Garingalao believes that it can be further reduced.

Among the months of the year with highest number of violations is January. “This is the month where Iloilo City holds the internationally-acclaimed Dinagyang Festival,” said Garingalao, “and we expect a lot of people coming over who are not aware of the strict enforcement of anti-smoking ordinance; as such, there are many violations.”

This year, the Iloilo City government also stepped up its campaign against smoking during the festival by mobilizing multipliers and coordinating with the Philippine National Police, different schools with ROTC [Reserve Officer Training Corps] programs, volunteer groups and almost all government law enforcement agencies who are working to ensure security and peace and order is maintained throughout the festival period.

The ICAST personnel and agents on the ground are limited and it could not meet the ideal ratio considering the population of Iloilo City as a highly urbanized center. This is also one of the reasons why ICAST has to innovate ways by forging partnerships both with the public and private sectors.  

Garingalao also underscored that “enforcement could not be singlehandedly done by the City Government; it also requires partnership and we need to tap multi-sectoral involvement.”

‘Smoking can knock-out the poor’

Raymundo Parcon, president of the Iloilo City Loop Alliance of Jeepney Operators and Drivers Association (ICLAJODA) expressed that the public utility jeepney workers who are members of their association has been complementing the effort of the City Government.

“Since the passage of the ordinance, we observed a drastic reduction among members who smoke cigarettes while driving. We have repeatedly reminded them to strictly observe the anti-smoking ordinance and also urge them to impose the no smoking policy among passengers,” affirmed Parcon.

The ICLAJODA is a major public transport sector in Iloilo City with 13 chapters and more than 3,000 individual drivers and operators as members. Parcon said, “that all of the jeepneys under them carry the ‘no smoking’ sticker reminder inside the jeep.” 

“Through the years,” noted Parcon, “the behavior of drivers had likewise changed regarding cigarette smoking in public having been aware of the negative health impacts of smoking. We cannot deny that fact that many PUJ drivers have succumbed to pulmonary diseases from smoking cigarettes and died.”

“If you have observed, there are no more ‘tiktak boys’ who approach drivers selling a stick of cigarettes at loading and unloading areas,” declared Parcon. The ICLAJODA president was referring to the ambulant cigarette vendors who are carrying a handheld box with different cigarette brands and selling them to PUJ drivers.

Parcon also believes that by bringing the prices of cigarettes higher through the Sin Tax will for sure discourage more drivers to smoke. The PUJ sector is sensitive to prices, because most of the drivers and operators also live under poverty and they survive from daily income.

“Drivers are usually head of the family, if not breadwinners of their clan. You can only imagine the impact to their family if they lose a breadwinner because of an illness, like one from smoking cigarettes,” reflected Parcon.

“If a poor driver dies from smoking cigarettes, he is not alone; his entire family can be knocked-out and they can suffer a lifetime,” stressed Parcon.

The impact of smoking to the poor as described by the public transport leader is an accurate illustration that mirror the findings of Felomino S. Sta. Ana III of the Action for Economic Reforms when he said that the “burden of smoking is greater on the poor.”

The barangay is a major battleground

Yet ICAST director Iñigo Garingalao recognizes that the barangay remains a major battleground in the fight against tobacco use and sale. “This is where enforcement remains weak and we consider it in our plans,” said Garingalao.

The challenge of enforcement is enormous at the community level because a lot of factors come into play; from local politics, community relations, lack of cooperation, and lack of capacity among barangay officials. This is not to mention the required resources for personnel, facility and equipment and strategies necessary to saturate all areas and sustain the effort.

“The barangay presents a different level of difficulty,” explained Garingalao, “because it is in these areas that sari-sari stores flourish selling cigarettes in retail and which are open even beyond midnight.”

“Iloilo City is comprised of 180 barangays and we need to design a more focused campaign drive for the barangays in the city,” shared Garingalao.

Former barangay captain Pal Pedrosa of Barangay Bolilao in Mandurriao district agrees with Garingalao’s observation. Pedrosa said that indeed it is difficult to police selling of cigarettes and enforcing the Anti-Smoking Ordinance at the barangay level for sari-sari stores are just meters away from each other and with high population density.

Bolilao is a highly populated barangay and located in Iloilo City’s new business district surrounded by hotels and shopping and dining centers.

But Pedrosa believes that tobacco selling can be controlled if the barangay local government is serious in enforcing laws and ordinances. “You must remember that the barangay has the power to exercise regulation and it can also mobilize resources, including assigning enforcers like the barangay tanod. So it can be done,” said Pedrosa. 

Going for the end game

 The Iloilo City local government is aiming to become as totally smoke-free city especially that it earned a distinction as a Hall of Famer in the Department of Health’s Red Orchid Award for smoke-free LGUs.

As an LGU with one of the most outstanding practices in the campaign against smoking in the Philippines, the Iloilo City Government has qualified in the program for smoke-free cities under the Southeast Asian Tobacco Control Alliance.

But ultimately, Iloilo City would not want to develop a generation of youth who are potential cigarette smokers. Tobacco companies refer to youth smokers as “replacement smokers.” Tobacco companies are conscious that “today’s teenager is tomorrow’s potential customer,” said Health Justice Philippines.

“We are aware of what “replacement smokers” is all about and we are at the helm of fighting it at the local level. In fact, our efforts are geared towards the ultimate ban of cigarettes or “end game” as it is called by the advocates of a tobacco-free generation,” highlighted Iñigo Garingalao.

TOBACCO-FREE GENERATION. Creative action by the youth against tobacco companies’ campaign of capturing the young generation of today as “replacement smokers.” Data shared by Action for Economic Reforms illustrate that the greatest reduction in terms of smoking prevalence is among the poor and the youth since the passage of the Sin Tax law in 2012. Photo from Iloilo City Anti-Smoking Task Force

The tobacco-free generation pushes for legislations which preclude the sale and supply of tobacco to individuals born in the year 2000 onwards.

In November 8, 2016, the Iloilo City Council passed another ordinance this time intended to institutionalize its efforts for tobacco control. Regulation Ordinance No. 2016-292 establishes the Tobacco Control Office for Iloilo City.

The steps being taken by the Iloilo City Government for tobacco control can be likened to building blocks, forming one component after another until it becomes a whole. By building blocks, a foundation for a generation-free from the epidemic of tobacco has gradually taken shape.

(The story was produced by the writer under the ‘Mga Nagbabagong Kuwento: Reporting on Tobacco and Sin Tax Media Training and Fellowship Program’ by Probe Media Foundation with the support of the Tobacco Free Kids.)

Leave a Reply