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Archive for the ‘Tobacco’ Category

What do cigarettes and capital gains have in common?

Well, they both start with the same letter, so maybe the Cookie Monster could incorporate them into his favorite song, but I’m thinking about something else. Specifically, both cigarettes and capital gains tell us something important about tax policy, the Laffer Curve, and the limits of political bullying.

In both cases, there are folks on the left who disapprove of these two “c” words and want to penalize them with high tax rates.

But it turns out that both cigarettes and capital gains are moving targets, so the politicians are grossly mistaken if they think that punitive taxation will generate a windfall of revenue.

I’ve already discussed why it’s senseless to impose high tax rates on capital gains. Simply stated, people can avoid the tax by not selling assets.

This might not be an ideal way of managing one’s investments, and it certainly isn’t good for the economy if it discourages new investment and prevents people from shifting existing investments into more productive uses, but it’s very effective as a strategy for individuals to protect against excessive taxation.

We see something quite similar with cigarettes. People can simply choose to buy fewer smokes.

Michel Kelly-Gagnon of Canada’s Montreal Economic Institute explains why higher tobacco taxes are not a guaranteed source of revenue for the political class.

Tax increases do not in each and every case lead to increases in government revenues. …When taxes on the consumption of a good are too high, you can get to a point where taxable consumption decreases and government revenues diminish rather than increase. Or at any rate, they don’t increase as much as what would be expected given the tax increase. This phenomenon constrains government’s ability to levy taxes. …There have been numerous examples in Canada of excessive taxes having a negative impact on government revenues. As shown by my colleagues Jean-François Minardi and Francis Pouliot in a study published last January ., there’s been three “Laffer moments” when it comes to tobacco tax revenues in Quebec since 1976. Whenever the level of taxation exceeded $15 per carton, the proceeds of the tobacco taxes eventually diminished. These are no isolated incidents. Laffer shows that the theory is confirmed by the experience of Cyprus, Denmark, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Ireland, Latvia, Portugal, and Sweden.

Here’s a chart from his column showing how tax revenue has dropped in Quebec when the tax burden became too onerous.

Michel then acknowledges that some people will be happy about falling revenue because it presumably means fewer smokers.

But that’s not necessarily true.

While it is true that some people are deterred from smoking by tax increases, this is not the case of all smokers. Some avoid taxes by buying contraband cigarettes. Tax increases have no effect on the health of these smokers.

And because the tax burden is so severe, the underground economy for cigarettes is booming.

The folks at Michigan’s Mackinac Center have some remarkable and thorough estimates.

Since 2008, Mackinac Center for Public Policy analysts have periodically published estimates of cigarette smuggling in 47 of the 48 contiguous states. The numbers are quite shocking. In 2012, more than 27 percent of all Michigan in-state consumption was smuggled. In New York, almost 57 percent of all cigarettes consumed in the state were also illicit. This has profound effects on the revenue generated by state (and sometimes local) government. …We estimate nationwide revenue losses due to cigarette smuggling at $5.5 billion, a statistic consistent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ $5 billion estimate for 2009.

Here are the numbers for each state.

If all this evidence isn’t enough for you, I also encourage a look at the impact of higher tobacco taxes in Ireland, the United States, and Bulgaria and Romania.

Heck, even the city of Washington, DC, serves as a perverse role model on the foolishness of over-taxation.

P.S. Since this column focuses on the Laffer Curve and tobacco taxation, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Art Laffer recently put together a Handbook of Tobacco Taxation – Theory and Practice.

P.P.S. Art implies, at least indirectly, that policy makers should set the tax rate on tobacco at the revenue-maximizing level. That is far better than having the rate above the revenue-maximizing level, to be sure, but it rubs me the wrong way. I will repeat to my final day on earth that the growth-maximizing tax rate is far superior to the revenue-maximizing tax rate.

P.P.P.S. I’m currently in Australia for a series of speeches on fiscal policy. But as you can see from this photo, the PotL and I managed to find time to act like shameless tourists.

Tourists in Oz

P.P.P.P.S. Since I’m imitating Crocodile Dundee in the photo, I should close by noting that Paul Hogan (the actor who played Crocodile Dundee) has been harassed by the Australian tax police.

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We all know that alcohol prohibition was great news for organized crime in the 1920s, and we also know that drug prohibition is causing widespread societal destruction today, but taxation also can facilitate criminal behavior. Specifically, there is considerable evidence that punitive taxes on cigarettes promote criminal activity. Here’s a video from Michigan’s Mackinac Center.

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In the private sector, no business owner would be dumb enough to assume that higher prices automatically translate into proportionately higher revenues. If McDonald’s boosted hamburger prices by 30 percent, for instance, the experts at the company would fully expect that sales would decline. Depending on the magnitude of the drop, total revenue might still climb, but by far less than 30 percent. And it’s quite possible that the company would lose revenue. In the public sector, however, there is very little understanding of how the real world works. Here’s a Reuters story I saw on Tim Worstall’s blog, which reveals that Bulgaria and Romania both are losing revenue after increasing tobacco taxes.

Cash-strapped Bulgaria and Romania hoped taxing cigarettes would be an easy way to raise money but the hikes are driving smokers to a growing black market instead. Criminal gangs and impoverished Roma communities near borders with countries where prices are lower — Serbia, Macedonia, Moldova and Ukraine — have taken to smuggling which has wiped out gains from higher excise duties. Bulgaria increased taxes by nearly half this year and stepped up customs controls and police checks at shops and markets. Customs office data, however, shows tax revenues from cigarette sales so far in 2010 have fallen by nearly a third. …Overall losses from smuggling will probably outweigh tax gains as Bulgaria struggle to fight the growing black market, which has risen to over 30 percent of all cigarette sales and could cost 500 million levs in lost revenues this year, said Bezlov at the Center for the Study of Democracy. While the government expected higher income from taxes in 2010 it has already revised that to the same level as last year. “However, this (too) looks unlikely at present,” Bezlov added. Romania, desperately trying to keep a 20 billion-euro International Monetary Fund-led bailout deal on track, has a similar problem after nearly doubling cigarette prices in 2009 then hiking value added tax. Romania’s top three cigarette makers — units of British American Tobacco, Japan Tobacco International and Philip Morris — contributed roughly 2 billion euros to the budget in taxes in 2009, or just under 2 percent of GDP. They estimate about a third of cigarettes in Romania are smuggled and say this could cost the state over 1 billion euros.

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No, that’s not the name of a new TV series. We should be so lucky. Instead, it’s a good description of the government’s approach to tobacco. Instead of letting adults make up their own minds about costs and benefits of risky choices (which includes most things in life, such as crossing a street and eating a cheeseburger), nanny-state officials have decided to investigate menthol-flavored cigarettes. And since the Food and Drug Administration has been given authority over the tobacco industry and since the FDA’s supposed purpose is to ensure drugs are “safe and effective,” that almost certainly means this latest campaign will lead to either further restrictions on free speech or outright bans. Here’s a blurb from the Wall Street Journal:

Congress last year added the tobacco industry to the FDA’s regulatory mix and today a panel of health experts making up the agency’s new Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee is kicking off a two-day meeting. First on the agenda: how menthol flavoring in cigarettes affects smokers’ habits. Small wonder that menthol is getting early attention, says the New York Times, which notes menthol butts account for almost a third of the $70 billion U.S. cigarette market. After more meetings, the advisory panel will send recommendations to the FDA, which could eventually decide to ban menthol products or take steps to curtail their marketing.

One can only wonder how far down the slope we will slide. There already are attacks against fatty foods and sugary soft drinks. Both provide pleasure to many people, but that no longer means much in Washington. Will regulators, either at the FDA or elsewhere, eventually decide that anything linked to obesity must be regulated and/or taxed? And now that government is going to pick up the tab for an even larger share of health costs, how long before the politicians use obesity-related costs as a major justification for further efforts to control our private lives? Maybe some day we will have a Federal Health Police to enforce daily exercise mandates? I better stop now before I give them any ideas.

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