Philippines: No free lunch for the Church

31 January 2017:

Does the Catholic Church in the Philippines know that CSR grants from a tobacco company to its charity events come with strings attached? Although the Catholic Church has not been involved in tobacco control in the past, in recent time several Catholic Archbishops have come out to support the new tax bill, HB4144. This bill seeks to amend the current unitary excise tax system on tobacco into a two-tier excise system.

The two-tiered system is anti-poor. While proponents of the new bill claim it will help tobacco growers and the poor, in reality the two-tier tax structure will actually encourage the young and the poor to smoke lower-priced cigarettes. These vulnerable groups will be kept addicted and exposed to diseases and premature death.

The Lower House passed the bill speedily in December and it is now pending in the Senate. Local tobacco company, Mighty Corporation, is touting this bill will help the poor, however the Department of Finance and the Health Department do not support the bill.

Although the Catholic Church does not get involved in the executive and legislative process however over the past two months several Archbishops have made statements in the media supporting the bill, stating it is “pro health”. They appear to be reading from the tobacco industry’s script.

One Archbishop said, “It is the government’s duty to protect the health of its citizens aside from raising revenues.” Another Archbishop claimed the bill will help his flock, “Many of our followers are lowly tobacco farmers whose only source of livelihood is dependent on the crop.”

For several years Mighty Corp’s CSR arm, the Wong Chu King Foundation, has been dishing out funds to charitable projects to the Catholic Church including refurbishing and rebuilding old churches, and providing assistance to needy Catholics. Publicity to these acts of charity have been extensively reported in Philippine media. Now Mighty Corp is mobilising support for this bill and the Church is delivering on cue.

There is evidence of the how recipients of tobacco industry related CSR can influence public policy. Hence the WHO FCTC recommends that governments ban such CSR activities. See here and here.

SEATCA previously wrote to leaders of the Catholic Church in the Philippines, appealing to them to stop receiving CSR grants from the tobacco industry; however they did not respond, apparently oblivious to the Philippines’ obligations under the FCTC and public policy on tobacco control. It is a pity that the vocal Archbishops have inadvertently trapped the Church in the clutches of an industry associated with more than 85,000 deaths annually in the country.

It is time for the Archbishops and the Church they represent to reflect on the contradictory messages they are sending out. They cannot talk about how the poor must quit smoking while simultaneously partnering with Mighty Corp which makes its profits from selling a deadly and addictive product to the poor. They cannot help the poor while their partner profits from selling cheap cigarettes to the poor.

The Scriptures say that when conducting charity, the left-hand must not know what the right-hand is doing. The Church should stop giving publicity to Mighty Corp’s fake CSR.

The Church should know by now there is no such thing as a free lunch.

For more information: Terminating Tobacco Industry Corporate Giving: A review of CSR in ASEAN