How Much is Enough?

I have spent the last 27 years peddling all kinds of products for multinationals. From detergents to paper products to beauty care to beverages and everything in between. And all to make a profit. There certainly is nothing wrong with making a profit, as long as you provide a good or service of value to your consumer.

Like anything, however, there can be “too much of a good thing” and mankind never ceases to amaze in our inability to satiate our desires, and we always seem to want more. As soon as we get a pay raise, we spend it and seem to need another one! As any company is just a collection of people, companies have the same dynamics. And sometimes, they take the pursuit of profits beyond the realm of reasonableness.

I am now selling a “sin product” for the first time in my life — tobacco. As a father of five, a physiologist by training, and former fitness trainer, this was a difficult step to take. I don’t smoke. I never did. And I certainly don’t want my kids to.

I spent considerable time thinking about it before I accepted. I decided that whether I used the product or not didn’t matter at all. I sold tampons for nearly 20 years and didn’t use them either! For me it boiled down to the concept of freedom. Tobacco is a legal yet controlled product. As long as it involves a legal adult making a conscious choice, and the product is legal, well it is a fundamental of freedom of choice. It’s somewhat similar to an adult choosing to ride a motorcycle or to drink a sugary soft drink. Both these choices are also representing potential health risks, but it is the individual that decides. Tobacco is another such choice. I don’t do it, but it is freedom of choice that another person can.

Maybe I am too new to this business, only a few months. Maybe I am naïve. Maybe I am still too much an idealist at heart. But what I have seen in the few months I have been on this business, at the history of the tobacco industry, disgusts me. It’s the worst case of corporate greed I have ever seen. I can recall meeting people in the tobacco industry years ago and they would wonder, “Why are we so despised?” And I too used to wonder. I don’t wonder any more. If the tobacco industry wants any clear read on why the credibility of this industry is shot, why no one trusts us, why we are looked at as devious and cunning, look no further than what is going on right now.

There has been an excise system in place for 16 years now that has not only protected the market for old brands, but has severely undermined the government tax revenues. The Philippines is among the lowest tax rates in the world, leading to the lowest cost cigarettes one can find in Asia. What we have had, in essence, is a system that kept out competition, paid low levels of taxes, and made smoking within reach of the poor and children. And who benefitted? A few people and a few companies. Let me correct myself and add an adjective — a few rich people and companies.

And now to fight reform, to try and negotiate amendments to the first true reform bill on sin taxes, the big arguments are these increases will “penalize the poor” or “raise prices too much of low-cost brands.” What this is, is really coded language for “We are worried we won’t keep growing the market by bringing more kids into the category” and “We won’t be able to keep poor people smoking and using their precious money on our product.”

It’s incredible. It’s sad. And I can’t do it. I can’t look at myself in the mirror each morning and do this. I can’t kiss my children. All to make some money? I mean, what kind of sickness leads to someone justifying keeping the poor and young smoking? I don’t ever want a kid to smoke. I don’t care how much extra profit there is. It’s wrong.

Despite the fact I am in tobacco, I am proudly on the other side of the industry. Everyone is against me and I am happy about it. I am proud to be on the right side of the matter. They say you can judge a society by how it treats its old and its young. It’s high time we protected our old, and our young. And this starts by not encouraging them to smoke.

Maybe I won’t last for long in this industry. Maybe I’ll be a pariah. I don’t know. And frankly I don’t give a damn. But I do know I will sleep like a baby at night, and know I did the right thing, for the Philippines, and for the poor and the old and the youth of this country. Smoking is not something they need.

And I have only one question for those who somehow are opposed to reform: How much money is enough?