TO fight smuggling and illicit tobacco trade, the Philippines must strengthen border control and invest in human resource training, automation, digitalization, and technology, Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Deogracias Victor Savellano said.
Savellano said the fight against illegal tobacco smuggling is not only aimed at reducing the billions of pesos lost in revenues but also to protect the consumers from serious health risks.
“A serious victim of illegal tobacco trade is the consumer himself who is exposed to risks of adverse health effects brought about by unregulated tobacco manufacturing,” Savellano said.
Meanwhile, former Congressman Jericho “Koko” Nograles said the government should invest in the Automatic Identification System (AIS), a transponder system that enables information exchange between ships and ship stations.
As part of the AIS technology, an app called “Marine Traffic” is capable of identifying vessels including small boats that are now apparently being heavily used in smuggling.
The small boats, called “jongkong,” can dock on any small island which may have caused the huge growth in illicit trade activities.
Nograles disclosed that the AIS technology may be very expensive for small fishermen but if the government shoulders the costs, its economic benefit may turn out to be huge since the illegal trade problem is even causing huge economic losses to the country.
“The new Coast Guard has proposed it (AIS) but it’s too expensive. But we find ourselves in a situation now that is so absurd that the losses could pay for the solution,” said Nograles.
Under the prevailing practice, only vessels with huge capacity are required to acquire the system that enables their tracking at sea.
Jongkong boats, however, are not required to install such a system, making these untraceable, thus enabling tobacco smugglers to easily run away with their illegal trade.
If the government invests in such a system, Nograles suggested the government may even find it easier to guard its territorial rights over the West Philippine Sea.
As there are dotted gray lines between countries’ territories at sea, the question of which country has jurisdiction over policy enforcement in this area arises, he said.
Nograles made the recommendation during the Anti-Illicit Trade Inter-Agency Dialogue wherein he warned that agriculture smugglers and perpetrators of illegal tobacco trade have unbelievably become “bigger and bolder.”
“The problem wasn’t as bad as it is now. Then, barely two years ago, the legitimate tobacco industry was just getting pinched. Now it’s bleeding,” said Nograles.
The former lawmaker added that the magnitude of agriculture smuggling, illegal tobacco trade and all related illegal trades lead to suspicions of their threat to national security. Illegal activities have even been linked to financing terrorism.
Tobacco smuggling’s impending victims are also legitimate tobacco manufacturers that are paying their tax dues.
An AIS system will enhance collaborative agreements between Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines on the enforcement of anti-smuggling laws over these questionable areas.
“These dotted gray lines have become a good business for smugglers,” said Nograles, explaining it must be another reason why illegal activities have been flourishing.