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Posts Tagged ‘Tobacco’

As a taxpayer, I’m not a big fan of international bureaucracies. They consume a lot of money, pay themselves extravagant (and tax-free!) salaries, and generally promote statist policies.

The Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is a prime example. Originally created for benign purposes such as gathering statistics, it now is a bloated bureaucracy pursuing an anti-free market agenda.

But international bureaucracies also have a nasty habit of operating in the shadows and using thuggish behavior to thwart critics. And I have the scars to prove it from my efforts to protect fiscal sovereignty.

But it’s not just the crowd in Paris that doesn’t believe in openness and fair play. A journalist recently traveled to South Korea to report on a World Health Organization conference on tobacco.

This doesn’t sound like the type of event that would involve skullduggery, but here’s part of what the reporter wrote for the Korea Times.

A monumental session during the World Health Organization’s (WHO) convention on tobacco control turned into an alarming attack on transparency, accountability and press freedom. …delegates of the member countries of the conference stripped the media of the ability to cover the meeting and escorted public onlookers from the premises. The decision to meet behind closed doors occurred when a discussion began about efforts to decrease tobacco use by increasing the price of tobacco products. Specifically, the convention attendees were discussing the framework for an international tobacco tax. This is one of the most controversial topics for debate in Seoul this week.

This is what is called a “learning moment.” And the journalist clearly recognized both the WHO’s hypocrisy and its troubling policy agenda.

As a reporter covering this meeting, this was not only a frustrating stance, but it raises some serious questions about an organization that for years has operated largely behind the scenes and without the benefit of much public scrutiny. When is the media more necessary than when an unaccountable, shadowy organization that devours millions of tax dollars each year from people across the world debates getting in the business of issuing global taxes? This effort to silence the press is particularly chilling since it is in direct conflict with the U.N. — the WHO’s parent organization—claims to fight to advance “free, independent and pluralistic media” across the world. Apparently, U.N. and WHO leaders believe in media rights in all cases except when the media covers them.

And remember, you’re paying for this thuggish behavior.

If you want to learn more about the underlying issue, I wrote about the WHO’s push for global tobacco taxation back in both May and September.

All of which is consistent with the broader ongoing push by the United Nations to get worldwide taxing power.

Needless to say, any form of global taxation would be a terrible development, but governments are sympathetic to such schemes since they view tax competition as a constraint on their ability to pursue redistribution and thus a limit on their efforts to buy votes with other people’s money.

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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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