Anti-smuggling advocate pushes for approval of Senate bill for harsher penalties on illicit cigarette trade
MANILA, Philippines — A former congressman known for his anti-smuggling stance pushed for the approval of a Senate bill seeking to classify cigarette smuggling as economic sabotage and make the commission of this crime non-bailable with a heftier punishment and fine.
Jericho Jonas Nograles, the former PBA Partylist representative, emphasized the importance of the approval of Senate Bill 1812 authored by Sen. Lito Lapid in the wake of the recent raids of smuggled cigarettes in Indanan, Sulu, which he dubbed as the “biggest confiscation in Philippine history.”
SB 1812 seeks to amend Republic Act 10845, the Anti-Agricultural Smuggling Act of 2016, to include tobacco products among “agricultural commodities” and classify smuggling tobacco products as economic sabotage and a non-bailable offense.
Authorities, headed by the Bureau of Customs (BOC), recently conducted two enforcement operations in Indanan, Sulu. The combined worth of potential taxes lost was estimated at P7.9 Billion.
“Agricultural smuggling happens. But tobacco or cigarette smuggling is more terrible than agricultural smuggling,” declared Nograles.
Nograles likened cigarette smuggling to arms smuggling, drug smuggling and even money laundering in terms of revenue losses and other ill effects, which he said needs stricter laws to deter these incidents from happening.
House Bill 3917, the counterpart measure of Lapid’s proposed bill, had been approved on the third and final reading at the House of Representatives in December, principally authored by Senior Deputy Majority Leader Sandro Marcos and PBA Partylist Rep. Margarita Ignacia Nograles.
Both proposed measures seek to amend Sections 3 and 4 of the Republic Act 10845 or the Anti-Agricultural Smuggling Act of 2016, specifically to classify tobacco or its finished products like cigarettes as an “agricultural commodity.”
Both bills likewise provide for imposing 30 to 40 years imprisonment, a fine of twice the fair value, and the aggregate amount of the taxes, unsettled duties, and other charges.
Under the existing law, the penalty for large-scale smuggling of onion, sugar, corn, rice poultry, pork, garlic, carrots, fish and cruciferous vegetables, classified as agricultural commodities, in their raw and state, or which have undergone the simple processes of preparation or preservation for the market, with a minimum of P1 million.
Nograles said the current law seemed not to deter the commission of smuggling, citing that since the implementation of the law in 2016, only one “small-time” case had been successfully prosecuted. He cited the smuggling case in Ormoc City in 2018 and was charged in 2019.
Although the Regional Trial Court judge, in its June 2020 decision, slapped the owner of the smuggled cigarettes with a three-year jail term, the fine was reduced to P35.4 million from the original fine of P354 million.
“Mas maraming nakakalusot kaysa mga nahuhuli. Alam naman natin yan [A lot of them are getting away compared to those who are being arrested],” Nograles said, reiterating the need to pass the Lapid proposed measure. “If the Indanan, Sulu double haul amounting to P7.9 billion in lost taxes is not economic sabotage, ano ang tawag mo don [what do you call that]?” he asked.
BIR estimates the annual revenue losses from cigarette smuggling to as much as P100 billion, which, when collected, will go to the cigarette excise tax fund and set to finance various basic services such as Universal Health Care.
In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the government used P150 billion from the cigarette excise tax fund and spent it to mitigate the plight of the pandemic victims and their families during the long lockdown.