x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Aquino to introduce free contraception despite church, Pacquiao threats

The Philippine president, Benigno Aquino, defeated the Roman Catholic Church and the tobacco lobby by using his popularity to push through twin laws to provide free condoms to the poor and raise taxes on cigarettes and liquor.

MANILLA // The Philippine president, Benigno Aquino, defeated the Roman Catholic Church and the tobacco lobby by using his popularity to push through twin laws to provide free condoms to the poor and raise taxes on cigarettes and liquor.

Legislators yesterday ratified a reproductive health bill that had been introduced and blocked repeatedly since 1998, and the legislation will be signed into law before the end of the year, Mr Aquino said. The extra revenue from the so-called sin tax will help the country win an investment-grade credit rating, said the tax commissioner, Kim Henares, yesterday.

Mr Aquino, 52, faced the possibility of excommunication from the church and criticism from the boxing politician, Manny Pacquiao and the former first lady, Imelda Marcos, to win support for the health bill. His approval rating is the highest for a president since the actor Joseph Estrada in 1999, buoyed by efforts to fight corruption and tackle an entrenched culture of tax evasion.

"Aquino managed to resurrect and rally support for controversial measures in which his predecessors had failed," said Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Manila-based Institute for Political and Electoral Reform. "His advocacy of these bills was personal and more than ministerial. He made good on his promises and proved that he's reform-orientated."

Mr Aquino signed the sin-tax bill yesterday, touting its healthcare benefits and criticising opponents of the new law.

"Many thought it was impossible to pass the sin tax," said Mr Aquino, who is a smoker himself. "The enemy was strong, noisy, organised. Those who were against it had deep pockets."

The reproductive health bill calls for mandatory sex education and requires the government to pay for contraceptives and family planning services for poor people. The United Nations has said it will help reduce poverty among the fifth of the nation's 104 million people who live in slum conditions.

"Logic and reason won," said Carlos Celdran, an activist who was jailed for a day after staging a protest at a 2010 meeting of bishops in the city's cathedral. "It shows that the Philippines is moving into the 21st century and is progressing mentally. It has broken the shackles of the Catholic Church."

In August, more than 9,000 nuns, priests and churchgoers dressed in red held rallies in Manila in an attempt to derail the legislation. "Whether or not an individual should live in this world should not be placed in the hands of his fellow men," Mr Pacquiao said during a congressional debate on December 12. "Only God has power over this."

Imelda Marcos, a congresswoman and the widow of the late dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, said during the same debate that "any law against natural law, the fundamental law of God, is against God".

One woman in five who is of reproductive age in the Philippines has an unmet family-planning need, the UN Population Fund said. The bill "is unfortunate and tragic" said the Manila archbishop, Luis Antonio Tagle.

While the church rallied opponents of the reproductive health bill, some of the nation's wealthiest businessmen were attacking Mr Aquino's efforts to pass the sin tax, which will raise levies on wine and spirits and calls for twice-yearly tax increases on cigarettes.

The San Miguelgroup, which controls 90 per cent of the nation's beer market, Asia Brewery Inc and the Philippine Tobacco Institute ran separate advertisements saying the law will hurt sales and put jobs at risk. Mr Aquino's uncle, Eduardo Cojuangco, is chairman of San Miguel.

Seven of the 10 leading causes of death in the Philippines, where 28 per cent of people aged 15 and older smoke. The bill will tax tobacco and liquor tax rates by 4 per cent yearly to discourage their use, said the finance secretary, Cesar Purisima.

While the WHO said the sin tax is "primarily a health measure," it also will provide an important boost to the country's finances, said Ms Henares, the tax chief.

The president's performance rating after two years in office remained steady at 78 per cent last month, according to a November 23 to 29 poll of 1,200 adults by Pulse Asia Inc..

* Bloomberg