Group backs ban on online shops selling illicit tobacco products

Social Watch Philippines (SWP), an organization advocating pro-health policies, supports blocking all e-commerce platforms that allow the sale of illicit tobacco products to eliminate online illegal trade and lower tobacco consumption.

Last week, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman and Albay 2nd District Rep. Jose Maria Clemente “Joey” Salceda announced that he would propose a comprehensive tobacco illicit trade bill prohibiting the sales of tobacco products on the internet to curb the sale of illegal cigarettes and vaping products.

“Regulating in-person sales is already challenging as it is. Handling e-commerce takes more work and technical expertise due to privacy and data manipulation concerns. The tobacco companies have exploited these digital loopholes to reach the younger populace in a broader yet unregulated market. According to the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA), the tobacco industry is also the supplier of some counterfeit products traded across online stores. We urge the online shopping platforms to be vigilant and conscientious in their business operations by removing illegal products,” SWP Co-convenor Dr. Ma. Victoria Raquiza said.

According to the 2019 Global Youth Tobacco Survey (GYTS), 14.1 percent, or one in seven, students aged 13 to 15 said they are currently using e-cigarettes. The GYTS also revealed how easy it is for the youth to buy tobacco products in the country, with about two in five students who currently smoke (37 percent) saying that it is easy to purchase tobacco products regardless of age.

“Our laws should always be grounded in reality. What are the purchasing habits of consumers? How easy is it to access and falsify information online? How hard is it to monitor these digital shops? Will our policies evolve quickly enough to address the fast-changing nature of the e-market? We have come a long way in protecting public health against these toxic products. We must create and adopt practical strategies across all online stores to eliminate illegal trade and lower tobacco consumption,” Raquiza said.

Raquiza also noted that we should not underestimate these products’ economic impact. She pointed out that the large quantities of tobacco products sold in the market below retail cost and without tax accounted for billions of uncollected taxes in recent years. She emphasized that the billions lost could have been used to implement Universal Health Care (UHC) and fund strategic health programs amidst the pandemic.

Citing the Department of Health (DOH) data, she reiterated that the country already suffered a loss of PHP 365.79 billion in 2021 due to tobacco-related diseases. The direct medical cost from tobacco use reached PHP 247 billion, the indirect cost due to premature death was PHP 73 billion, and the indirect cost for morbidity was PHP 30.7 billion.

Meanwhile, Raquiza renewed SWP’s call for the government to open up other economic programs and provide additional sources of livelihood to encourage local community retailers to sell basic, essential, and healthy products like rice and vegetables rather than addictive cigarettes and other tobacco products. She also stressed the retailers’ role in enabling smoke-free and vape-free environments.

“While we push for the implementation of existing laws with provisions against illicit trade like the Tobacco Tax Law (RA 11346) and promote proposals such as Salceda’s, we also urge the administration to help provide alternative livelihoods for MSMEs selling tobacco products,” said Raquiza.