Monday, May 31, 2010

Smoking toddler highlights Indonesia's tobacco addiction

JAKARTA - A new video of a smoking Indonesian toddler has emerged to shock health experts and provide further graphic illustration of the Southeast Asian country's growing addiction to tobacco.

The parents of a two-year-old boy seen smoking in a clip posted on The Sun newspaper's website are to be investigated, Indonesian officials said after the video drew worldwide attention.

Chubby Ardi Rizal laughs and responds to the adults around him as he sits on his plastic tricycle and inhales deeply from frequent drags on a cigarette.

His father reportedly gave him his first cigarette when he was 18 months old and now he smokes 40 a day. His mother says he beats his head against the wall unless he gets nicotine, but his father insists he is "healthy".

Child Protection Ministry official Heru Kasidi said the family would be investigated for what would be considered a clear case of child abuse in many countries.

It's the second time this year Indonesia has been embarrassed by such media coverage.

Another video was posted on the Internet last month showing an Indonesian boy aged about four puffing on a locally made clove cigarette, blowing smoke rings and swearing with the encouragement of adults.

Weak regulations -- Indonesia is the only country in Southeast Asia not to have signed the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control -- have enabled tobacco companies to target young Indonesians with advertising and events promotions.

US singer Kelly Clarkson dropped tobacco sponsorship for her Jakarta concert in April after anti-smoking groups protested on the grounds that she was effectively encouraging her young fans to smoke.

Other artists such as Jamiroquai, Anggun, Incubus and James Blunt have allowed their Indonesian shows to be used as vehicles for tobacco marketing.

Anti-smoking activists and health experts say Indonesia is a paradise for the tobacco industry, which has been aggressively expanding sales in the country of about 240 million people.

"The regulations on the tobacco industry in Indonesia are weak. They protect the shareholders in the industry more than the people," activist Kartono Mohamad said.

"The people in Indonesia are fighting alone against the tobacco industry, the government and the policy makers. It's one against three."

According to the World Health Organisation, cigarette consumption in the Southeast Asian archipelago soared 47% in the 1990s.

Almost 70% of men over 20 years of age smoke, and regular smoking among boys aged 15 to 19 increased from 36.8% in 1997 to 42.6% in 2000.

But anti-smoking initiatives have floundered in the face of the powerful local tobacco industry, which employs scores of thousands of people and generates more than six billion dollars a year for the government.

A bill establishing tobacco as an addictive substance was about to be signed into law last year when officials realised the pertinent clause had been mysteriously deleted. The case is under investigation.

The government has increased excise taxes but prices remain extremely low by international standards, with a pack of 20 costing little more than a dollar.

Even so, studies have shown that poor families spend more on cigarettes than on books and education.

In another blow to anti-tobacco activists, lawmakers have strongly opposed a plan to cut cigarette production by five percent to about 248 billion sticks this year on the grounds that it would hurt local producers.

Foreign makers like British American Tobacco and Philip Morris have long recognised the opportunities in Indonesia.

In March, Philip Morris's local unit, PT HM Sampoerna, the country's largest producer, announced a net profit increase of 31% to 5.08 trillion rupiah (548.64 million dollars) last year.

In the absence of tough government regulations Muslim clerics recently issued a fatwa against smoking.

But analysts said the religious edict was likely to have about as much effect as regulations banning smoking in bars and restaurants, which are widely ignored.

"More and more Indonesian children have become victims of the cigarette industry," Indonesian Child Protection Commission chairman Hadi Supeno said.

"There are many children under five years of age who have started smoking. A decade ago, the average age of beginner smokers was 19 but a recent study found that the average is seven."

Shareholders OK San Miguel diversification plans

MANILA, Philippines - San Miguel Corp. shareholders on Monday gave their backing to the conglomerate’s diversification plans, among them proposals to sell down over 51% of its core businesses and the declassification of its shares.

San Miguel President and CEO Ramon S. Ang, speaking to reporters following a stockholders’ meeting, highlighted the diversification push in announcing that the firm was buying land on an island across the tourist haven of Boracay to quell competition for a newly acquired airport project.

Mr. Ang said continued diversification would allow San Miguel to match or outperform P57.8-billion profit in 2009. The firm has expanded from its core businesses of food and beverage into high-growth sectors like power, infrastructure and telecommunications, beginning with the spin-off and public listing of San Miguel Brewery in 2007.

The plan to sell 51% of "major subsidiaries" is aimed at allowing San Miguel to invest in other businesses such as mining and telecommunications. The firm did not name the subsidiaries, although it is in the process of selling 49% of its food subsidiary after allowing Japanese partner Kirin Holdings Co. Ltd. greater control over San Miguel’s beer brewing unit.

San Miguel also declassified its "A" and "B" shares and will have only one class of common or voting shares to get a "broader investor base" and "greater public participation." The firm’s "A" shares are restricted to Filipinos while "B" shares are open to all.

Class "A" and "B" shares in the company rose to P74 and P76 each yesterday from P72.50 and P73, respectively, on Friday.

Ferdinand K. Constantino, chief financial officer of San Miguel, said some units would be left to the management of "strategic partners."

"The strategic partners will improve the company’s ability to focus on power, telecommunications, infrastructure and mining assets ... while expanding core businesses," he said during the annual meeting.

Strong demand for alcoholic beverages and better-than-expected results from its packaging and food businesses, along with a one-time gain from a stake sale in its brewery unit, allowed San Miguel to post a 199% rise in net income in 2009.

Mr. Ang said Petron Corp., in which San Miguel will buy a majority stake, would add P200 billion in sales per year.

The sale of a 49% stake in San Miguel Pure Foods Co., Inc., which he said had a value of $1.8 billion, will also hike profits.

Mr. Ang, meanwhile, said the conglomerate would be buying land on Carabao Island in Romblon, right across Boracay, to head off competition for its P2.5-billion project to upgrade the Caticlan airport, which serves as the jump-off point to the tourist haven.

"Bibilhin na namin para wala nang gulo, pero hindi masyadong malaki (We will buy it to prevent problems but not at a price too high)" he said about rival investors said to be seeking to build an international airport on Carabao Island.

Mr. Ang said the Carabao Island airport investors were willing to sell at P500 per square meter, a tidy profit from the original price of P50. He did not identify the investors and did not indicate the size of the land.

The island, described as 4 times the size of Boracay with the same white sand beaches, is home to 11,000 people and hosts the town of San Jose. Boracay island is about 20 minutes away by boat.

San Miguel, however, has yet to find a use for the Carabao Island property.

"The Carabao Island to Boracay [route] has high waves, that is open sea," Mr. Ang said in Filipino. "If you will build an airport there going to Boracay, there will be many accidents," he added.

San Miguel last month took a majority stake in Caticlan International Airport Development Corp., the firm holding the P2.5-billion contract to modernize and expand the airport.

A 25-year concession agreement was signed in June 2009 by the consortium, previously headed by George T. Yang, with the government for the modernization of Caticlan airport under a build-rehabilitate-operate-transfer scheme.

Aquino names 2 Cabinet members

MANILA, Philippines - President-apparent Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III said on Monday the search for members of his Cabinet continues.

He said Cabinet members in his administration need to be honest, have integrity and will not abuse power.

Aquino named his good friend, Atty. Paquito "Jojo" Ochoa Jr, as his executive secretary. Ochoa played a key role in Aquino's campaign for the presidency.

Ochoa's family also has close ties to the Aquino clan. In the event that a justice secretary cannot be found, the position may also be offered to Ochoa.

Aquino said Ochoa has accepted his offer in principle. He also said Ochoa has his "utmost trust."

Aside from Ochoa, Atty. Edwin Lacierda has accepted the post of presidential spokesman.

Aquino earlier said he would appoint former Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) Secretary Dinky Soliman to her old post, which Soliman also accepted.

But the rest of the posts in Aquino's Cabinet are still up for grabs.

For the education portfolio, Aquino said he is considering Brother Armin Luistro of De La Salle University (DLSU) and former Education Secretary Florencio "Butch" Abad.

Abad, Aquino's campaign manager, previously held the post in the early years of the Arroyo administration.

For the tourism department, Aquino said he is asking celebrity talk show host Boy Abunda. However, the host, who is a good friend of the Aquino family, said he would like to stay in showbiz.

While Aquino did not name his appointments to the military and police, he said he will definitely not reappoint General Delfin Bangit as chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), and will not accept the resignation of Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Director General Jesus Verzosa.

Former Arroyo Cabinet men

Other names reportedly being floated for the Aquino Cabinet and other top positions are Cesar Purisima for finance, Alberto Lim for budget and management, Willie Parayno for the Bureau of Customs, Cayetano Paderanga for the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA), and Alberto Romulo for foreign affairs.

Former DSWD Secretary Soliman, former Education Secretary Abad, former Finance Secretary Purisima and former Bureau of Customs Commissioner Parayno were part of the so-called "Hyatt 10," Cabinet and senior officials who asked President Arroyo to resign in 2005 following the "Hello Garci" election fraud scandal.

Lim is currently the executive director of the Makati Business Club (MBC). Paderanga was NEDA director-general in the last 3 years of the Aquino administration. He was also a member of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas Monetary Board from 1993-1999.

Romulo, a long-time family friend and supporter of the Aquinos, has been foreign affairs secretary of the Arroyo government since 2004. He had expressed his personal support for Aquino in the May 10 elections.

Balay vs Samar factions

But even as the search for Cabinet members continues, reports are surfacing that the jockeying for positions among the different factions in the Aquino-Roxas campaign is intensifying.

Several in the camp of Senator Manuel “Mar” Roxas II believe there are those in the group that supported Pwersa ng Masang Pilipino (PMP) vice presidential bet Jejomar "Jojo" Binay, and not Roxas.

An office in Araneta Center in Quezon City is known as Balay, and served as the campaign headquarters of the Noy-Mar campaign. Among the groups that used Balay are the "Hyatt 10", the Liberal Party, and the Bantay Balota vote protection group.

Meanwhile, a house along Samar St. in Quezon City was used as an office by Senator Francis "Chiz" Escudero; Jojo Ochoa, head of Pinoy Lawyers; and, Maria Montelibano, media and communications head of the Aquino campaign.

This is why the two factions involved in the fighting are known as the Balay group and Samar group.

While Ochoa has denied supporting Binay for vice president, members of the Balay faction say he did, and should not have been offered the post of executive secretary.

Escudero, however, denied being a part of any faction.

Aquino himself admitted there are several groups pushing for different people to be appointed to his Cabinet, but he refused to call them factions

While he has yet to be officially proclaimed the new president, Aquino is facing one of his first hurdles -- choosing his Cabinet that will serve as his alter egos for the next six years.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Abcede insists on 'midnight sale' of Marcos jewels

MANILA, Philippines - Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) Commissioner Ricardo Abcede is determined to auction off the Marcos jewelry before the next government takes over in June, saying he will insist on this when the commission en banc meets again.

"If the PCGG thinks the Arroyo presidency should await the presidency of Noynoy Aquino before taking steps to auction off the jewels, then the PCGG will hear a loud and yes, disrespectful 'no' from me, the next time we meet en banc," he said in a statement.

Abcede issued his statement as he accompanied Raymond Sancroft-Baker, an official from auction house Christie's, at the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) Cash Department for appraisal and inventory of the 200-piece Roumeliotes collection of jewelry on Wednesday.

Roumeliotes is one of the 3 jewelry collections from former First Lady Imelda Marcos. The other 2 are the Malacañang collection, which was found in the Palace after the Marcos family left the country in 1986, and the 300-piece Hawaii collection seized by US customs officials.

Abcede's plan to auction the jewels goes against the decision of other PCGG commissioners to leave the matter to the next administration because of legal impediments, and to avoid being accused of striking a "midnight" deal.

The PCGG claimed it did not issue any resolution authorizing the auction of the Marcos jewels.

However, Abcede, who admitted spreading himself thin to pursue the "much-delayed" auction, reiterated that the jewels should not gather dust in the vaults of the BSP while government coffers bleed.

"If some colleagues of mine in the PCGG think it’s too soon to convert those billion-peso jewels into cash, more than 20 years after they had been confiscated by the government, I’ll just have to say I am of a different stripe than they," he said.

"I happen to be the type to bulldoze through and over bureaucracy to attain goals that just cannot be sacrificed on the altar of red tape – considering the dire need of the Filipino nation for funds."

Abcede earlier said that the jewelry auction had been scheduled by the Department of Finance (DOF) as early as last year, the very reason why it could not be labeled as a midnight sale.

According him, a gemologist from another auction house, Sotherby's, will arrive on Thursday to also conduct an appraisal of the jewelry collections.

By Friday, Abcede said all appraisals would be completed after which a final meeting with DOF, Commission on Audit, Bureau of Customs and PCGG would be held.

Stocks buoyed by Wall St gains, strong GDP data

MANILA, Philippines - Local share prices extended their winning streak on Friday, mirroring gains in Wall Street overnight.

Traders said better-than-expected first-quarter economic figures on the local front, and China's plans to keep its European holdings encouraged investors to pick up some more stocks.

The benchmark Philippine Stock Exchange index surged 3% or 96.10 points to 3,252.63. Today's advance brought the market's week-on-week gains to 2.3%.

The broader all-share index also rose 2.5% or 49.78 points to 2,049.38.

All sectoral indices trekked higher, with the holdings sector up the most. It outperformed the main gauge, with a 5.1% jump.

Overall, market breadth was positive as advancers swamped decliners, 94 to 26. There were 46 issues unchanged.

A total of 1 billion shares worth P3.5 billion were traded.

A tenth of that amount came from SM Prime Holdings Inc., making it the most actively traded stock by value. SM Prime closed flat at P10.50 per share.

Meantime, banking stocks were also actively traded on strong foreign buying.

Bank of the Philippine Islands rose 1.1% to P44.50 while Metropolitan Bank and Trust Co. soared 3.6% to P57.

Top lender Banco de Oro Unibank Inc. jumped 2.3% to P43.50 after it announced it was expecting a 30% increase in its 2010 net income to P8.1 billion.

ABS-CBN Broadcasting Corp. also ended in positive territory for the third straight day, adding 2.7% to P38.50. That was the stock's highest closing price since August 7, 2001.

Sentiment on ABS-CBN has been positive due to expectations that its ad revenues may exceed P15 billion this year.

For next week, traders said the market's movement will still be dictated by the performance of the US and European markets, adding that on the local front, investors will wait for the latest inflation data as they monitor election canvassing proceedings.

Banco de Oro sees 2010 profit up over 30%

MANILA, Philippines - Banco de Oro Unibank Inc., the Philippines' largest lender by assets, expects its net profit to grow more than 30% this year to around P8 billion ($175 million), its president said on Friday.

Nestor Tan told Reuters the bank, a unit of conglomerate SM Investments Corp., which is owned by the country's richest man, Henry Sy, expects its net profit this year to increase by "about a third."

Banco de Oro posted a net profit of P6.1 billion in 2009, climbing nearly 3 times from 2008.

World Bank cancels Haiti's debt

WASHINGTON - The World Bank said Friday it had canceled Haiti's remaining debt to help the impoverished country recover from a devastating earthquake four months ago.

Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, will not have to repay 36 million dollars owed to the International Development Association (IDA), the bank's fund for the poorest countries, the Washington-based institution said in a statement.

"Haiti now has no further amounts payable to the World Bank," it said.

The IDA debt cancellation was made possible by contributions from 13 member nations: Belgium, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, The Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.

Shortly after the massive earthquake in January flattened the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, the 186-nation World Bank announced it had suspended repayment of the IDA debt and would seek to cancel it.

"Relieving Haiti's remaining debt is part of our effort to pursue every avenue to help Haiti's reconstruction efforts," Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank, said in the statement.

"We will continue to work in close cooperation with the Haitian government and our international partners to support the country's recovery and longer-term development."

The World Bank noted it has made available 479 million dollars in grants to support Haiti's post-quake recovery and development through June 2011 and is also the trustee of the multi-donor Haiti Reconstruction Fund.

JP Morgan raises 2010 growth forecast for Philippines

MANILA, Philippines - Investment bank JP Morgan has raised its economic growth projection for the Philippines this year to 6.8% from the previous 4.5% after faster-than-expected growth in the first quarter.

JP Morgan also said that continued growth, along with increased tax revenues, would allow the government to trim the budget deficit to its full-year goal of P293.2 billion.

"The tax collection trend in the first 4 months of the year is encouraging with the Philippines' main tax agencies posting actual collections higher than their respective goals. If this is sustained, this should help the government meet its goal of trimming fiscal deficit," said JP Morgan sovereigns analyst Matt Hildebrandt.

"We do expect sequential growth to moderate from its blistering pace recently," he added, referring to the country's gross domestic product (GDP).

Philippine GDP grew 7.3% in the first quarter from a year ago buoyed by global recovery, which spurred exports; election spending; and increased remittances from overseas Filipinos. The first quarter GDP exceeded the government's 2.9% to 3.9% growth projection.

Consumption, which makes up nearly two-thirds of the economy, was supported by a 7% annual rise in remittances and record spending by the government, including on infrastructure projects, ahead of a ban on new state contracts before the May 10 national elections.

Exports, on the other hand, surged 43% as demand for electronics shipments recovered from the previous year's crisis-induced lows. Exports account for about two-fifths of GDP in expenditure terms.

The Philippines was one of the few countries in the region to skip a recession in 2009, helped by government stimulus spending.

However, accelerated public spending, along with low tax collections, widened the budget deficit last year to a record P298.5 billion.