Senator Pia Cayetano had a mouthful to say in yesterday’s public hearing on sin tax proposals in the Senate. She reacted to a lament made by the representative of the Asia Brewery Inc. (ABI), the beer company owned by Lucio Tan, that hefty increases in the tax rates of alcoholic products will raise prices, make the product less accessible to the poor, and reduce sales. Of course, all this will mean problems for ABI’s income statement.
Cayetano, who is a physical fitness and health enthusiast, reminded the ABI official that:
- alcoholic drinks and tobacco products are harmful products; and
- raising taxes on sin products has the expressed intention of reducing their consumption
Her parting shot? It’s not the government’s responsibility to make sure that firms producing such ‘goods’ will remain profitable. It is also not the government’s responsibility to find alternatives for these firms if demand for sin products decreases because of price increases. Finding alternatives is the firms’ responsibility.
The stated rationale for the tax bill is to reduce consumption of so-called ‘sin’ products and collect increased revenues due to the hike in tax rates. Revenues will be earmarked for health programs for those who got sick because of alcohol and cigarettes.
Let’s deconstruct this proposed bill’s rationale. Every university student who enlisted in elementary economics knows that when the price of a product iincreases, the demand for the same decreases. This means that product sales and sales revenue of producing or marketing firms will likewise decline.
However, demand for a product does not depend on its price alone. Indeed, price increase can dampen demand but other factors can mitigate the impact of the price increase. For example, a buyer may continue consuming the same amount of beer or cigarettes even if product prices went up. He may do so because of taste, bull-headedness, habit, or peer pressure. He may reduce the consumption of other goods so he can finance the purchase the same amount of his favorite ‘sins’.
Experts actually believe that demand for cigarettes is inelastic; meaning demand is not greatly affected by price changes.
Nicotine is believed to be addictive and smokers find it very difficult to quit smoking. In a 2007 article published in the Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics, Craig Gallet reported that “compared to other alcoholic beverages, beer elasticities tend to be more inelastic.
This means that raising sin tax rates may not go a long way to discourage consumption. Will the tax bill raise enough money to fund health programs?
Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, once Customs Commissioner and Secretary of Finance, bluntly told finance officials the other day they need to temper the revenue collection targets. He warned that smuggling will eat into projected collections. Enrile’s warning cannot be dismissed outright. One, he is fully aware of the shortcomings of our country’s anti-smuggling bureaucracy. Second, guarding our shorelines (reputedly twice longer than that of the United States) against smugglers.
While Enrile has a point, some questions need to be raised. Assuming that the proposed tax rates are adopted and enacted to law (and most likely, they will not and compromises will be reached), how much sin must be smuggled into the country? Surely, the Senator is not suggesting that the entire or even half of the market will be served by smuggled goods. What had been argued so far are blanket warnings regarding smuggling but no estimates are offered so we can understand the negative impact of smuggling of potential revenues.
Any idea where the smuggled ‘sins’ will come from? Where they will come in? Isn’t it most likely through the so-called Southern back-door? Won’t this knowledge help us mitigate the adverse effects of smuggling?
While readers of this post may have correctly surmised that I am in favor of sin tax reform, it’s more complicated than simply raising tax rates. The challenge to policy makers is to design measures that could meet sometime conflicting objectives as well as be compatible with prevailing circumstances.