The sin of smuggling and corruption in the Sin tax law

* This is my article in BusinessWorld last October 23, 2017.

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The intent or purpose of higher taxation is to further penalize an act, work, or consumption, hoping to discourage them by making their prices higher while giving government and lobbyists more freebies and more money.

The unintended result of higher taxation is to encourage illicit trade, production of cheaper but lower quality goods and services while giving the corrupt and extortionists in government more money.

Such may be the experience of the Sin Tax law of 2012 or RA 10351. It has raised lots of money for government, benefitted the universal health care program of DoH-PhilHealth while enriching the smugglers, illicit traders and their government protectors.

Revenues from sin tax has significantly increased in 2013, the first year of implementation of the law. Tobacco tax in particular has more than doubled from P32B in 2012 to P70B in 2013. Meanwhile, estimates of cigarettes smuggling have also increased from 35 million packs in 2012 to 40 million packs in 2013 (see table).

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The CRC estimates are partly derived from the Oxford Economics report in 2016, “Asia: Illicit Tobacco Indicators 2015.”

The rise in smuggling and illicit trade of cigarettes is also shown by the haul of the BoC and BIR in raids in November 2016 in Bulacan, Pampanga and Pangasinan where more than P1 billion worth of illegally produced cigarettes and counterfeits were discovered. In Pangasinan alone, an illegal factory was raided, which led to the discovery of fake stamps and cigarette making/packing machines that can produce up to 3.6B cigarettes a year.

So claims by the government and advocates of RA 10351 that “8 million Filipinos have stopped smoking since the passage of the law” or “at least 70,000 smoking-related deaths have been averted since 2013” and similar pronouncements may not be true after all? Or are these numbers exaggerated?

The numbers in the table and the huge number of discovered smuggled cigarettes by government raids mean one thing — demand and consumption for tobacco products remained high despite the tax hike. Consumers simply shifted from higher-price to lower-price products, and from legal to illegal or informal sources of tobacco and alcohol products. Like lambanog and tuba.

I made an informal, verbal survey of some small sari-sari stores in a rice farming village in Bugallon, Pangasinan when I went there last month, accompanied by a local. I asked the store owners, “Has smoking and drinking incidence by the people declined, stayed about the same, or increased?”

They replied that they do not have the numbers but they observe that smoking and drinking incidence did not drop or decline. Poor people simply shifted to cheaper brands as new brands with cheap products like Mighty sprouted. The well-off continued patronizing the established higher-price brands despite the rise in prices, they simply reduced their smoking by several sticks a day.

For alcohol products, San Miguel beer is literally wiped out in poorer villages because of its higher price but the consumption of Ginebra, Emperador, Red Horse, and other products has remained the same if not increased. Drinkers usually start with the high alcohol drinks and before going home or elsewhere, they wind down to Red Horse.

Sen. Manny Pacquiao introduced Senate Bill 1599 that aims to increase the unitary excise tax on tobacco products from P30 to P60 per pack, and the annual increase be raised from 4% to 9%. His goal is to parrot the goals of the Sin tax law of 2012 — more money for government, less smoking incidence by the people.

Given the above numbers and facts on the ground, what the boxer-Senator would achieve if his bill becomes a law would be more illicit trade and more corruption in government while gaining more political pogi points for his political plans in 2022.

Instead of introducing another round of higher sin tax, legislators and executive agencies should focus on strictly implementing the existing law and plug loopholes. The proliferation of counterfeit products and stamps mean there is proliferation of corruption in government that allowed such things to happen for several years.

There is a limit to state nannyism and government intervention on how people should run their own lives. Government should limit its unlimited itch to tax-tax-tax, regulate-regulate-regulate, spend-spend-spend.

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Sugar tax and nanny state

Why the DOF’s sugar tax bill in Congress is lousy.

  1. The state is further addicted to tax-tax-tax mentality and policy.
  2. This 2-tier taxation (higher tax for imported sugar) is anti-WTO rules, DFA is correct.
  3. State nannyism (‘protect public health’ alibi) is fuelling more state interventionism. Tax alcohol, tobacco, soft drinks, juices. Soon it will tax litson baboy, litson manok.

See this report from BusinessWorld last week.

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That the state has hiked the tax on alcohol and tobacco products is generally accepted by the public. But taxing further soft drinks, powdered juice drinks, etc. is OA state nannyism. People own their body, not the state and politicians, not the health NGOs, etc. Simple joys by the poor like drinking powdered juice, the state will make these products become more expensive, and certain sectors like health NGOs, medical groups are clapping partly because they will get more tax money.

Earlier, a lady Senator wanted to file a bill banning unlimited rice (“unli-rice”) in restaurants. The usual alibi is “public health concern.” Trying-hard state nannyism, those politicians and state bureaucrats think they are so bright they can plan other people’s lives. Next they will penalize climbing trees and climbing roofs because they might fall and it’s bad for their health and it’s bad for public health budget.

The silent motive here is that Dutertenomics will need lots of tax-tax-tax because it will go into endless borrow-borrow-borrow from China. Improving public infra is good and there are many big private companies, local and foreign, willing to bankroll many infra projects, but this administration intends to please China — the communist dictatorial government, its banks and contractors.