Food Taxes

Will the sugar tax leave a bad taste in your mouth?

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In this weekly column on The Sunday Morning Business titled “The Coordination Problem”, the scholars and fellows associated with Advocata attempt to explore issues around economics, public policy, the institutions that govern them and their impact on our lives and society.

Originally appeared on The Morning


By Aneetha Warusavitarana

Rising rates of obesity and incidence of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) have long been a point of concern for the Sri Lankan health sector. As a country, we have made significant strides in addressing the challenge of communicable diseases, and now policymakers are shifting focus onto NCDs. The imposition of a tax on sweetened drinks in 2018 was a point of serious debate. It was both lauded as an admirable step in tackling the issue of NCDs, while simultaneously facing serious protest from the soft drink industry.

In 2018, the 51-day Government reduced this tax, and now the present Government stated that it will re-impose the tax, citing health concerns as the motivation behind it. While a final decision is yet to be taken on this, given that this is the same Government that imposed the tax, it seems likely that we will be seeing a tax increase.

Political packaging

Sugar tax

Imposing this tax is an easy way to gain some political mileage. The narrative presented is simple – obesity and non-communicable diseases are a serious health concern for the Sri Lankan population. Sugar consumption is a contributor to this problem and as a responsible Government, they need to take steps to discourage consumption – this will be done through a tax per gram of sugar in carbonated drinks. In essence, the tax is packaged as a health-positive policy measure. Indeed, at face value, the tax does present as such. However, there are a few questions which can be raised.

Is this tax fair?

There are two things in life that are certain – death and taxes. While it may be that we will have to continue paying taxes, these taxes should be sensible, effective, and should not be prohibitively burdensome. This idea has been espoused in basic principles of taxation to ensure the tax is effective and equitable. One of the principles the OECD expounds is that of neutrality: “Taxation should seek to be neutral and equitable between forms of business activities.” Neutrality also means that the tax system will raise revenue while minimising discrimination in favour of or against an economic choice.

In the case of the sugar tax being imposed by the Sri Lankan Government, it is clear that the principle of neutrality is not adhered to. At a fundamental level, it is a “sin tax” or a “fat tax” – a tax being imposed to change the economic choices of the population – the aim of the tax is not to raise revenue, but to shift consumer behaviour away to more healthy options. Given that the sugar tax is applicable only to carbonated drinks, and excludes other sweetened drinks like fruit juice or milk packets, it is clear that the principle of neutrality has been ignored here.

Does unfair equal ineffective?

The principle of neutrality in taxation is all well and good, but does this affect people? The answer is yes. When the principle of neutrality is violated and a tax is imposed in a manner that is inequitable to business activities, it loses its effectiveness. The objective of this tax is to discourage the consumption of carbonated drinks with a high sugar content, to achieve a higher goal of good health. When the tax is imposed unfairly only on carbonated drinks, it means the consumers which simply substitute a carbonated drink with an alternative – and there is no guarantee that the alternative will be a sugar-free, healthy one. In fact, the likelihood is that people will switch to a different product with a similar calorie/sugar count – if a bottle of fruit juice is cheaper than a bottle of Sprite in the supermarket, you don’t want to pay more for the bottle of Sprite and you are likely to buy the juice instead. The health concerns will not end up being addressed because consumers will simply substitute one drink which is high in sugar with another drink that is also high in sugar.

Unfortunately, in the case of taxing food and beverages, the issue is that consumers can simply choose to continue to consume a similar level of sugar, just from a different source. Given that this tax only applies to one category of sweetened beverages, consumers can easily substitute it with another, cheaper beverage. There is also the question of whether sales of carbonated beverages drop; international evidence has mixed results. While the WHO (World Health Organisation) applauds these taxes, other studies question whether the tax affects sales of carbonated drinks to an extent that it would have an effect on overall health, or whether consumers are simply shifting preference to an alternative which is an equally sugary substitute.

The final word on this is that there is, at best, uncertainty about whether this tax creates a positive health externality; and at worst, consumers switch to unhealthy alternatives while businesses lose out on revenue.

A bellyful of taxes!

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In this weekly column on The Sunday Morning Business titled “The Coordination Problem”, the scholars and fellows associated with Advocata attempt to explore issues around economics, public policy, the institutions that govern them and their impact on our lives and society.

Originally appeared on The Morning


By Dilshani N Ranawaka

With Avurudu week just coming to an end, you have probably realised that the total for your food bill is quite exorbitant. You may have attributed this to the festive season, and the fact that food really is quite expensive in Sri Lanka. However, have you questioned why this is the case? Why do we pay so much for something as essential as food?

Did you know that for every meal your family buys, you are paying the price of a second meal (for an individual) back to the government? You might not be aware but most of the daily consumed food items that you buy for your family are exorbitantly taxed! How informed are we of the indirect taxes we are paying with every purchase we make?

Let’s take a look at the grocery list for a balanced meal of four in a family (Quantities recommended by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Balanced Meal tax figures

When one delves into these statistics, it is interesting to see that we pay around Rs.150+ to the government in the form of taxes, just on this small basket of grocery items. That's the equivalent to one rice packet you could have bought for lunch!  

Taxes are imposed for two main reasons; they are the main source of government revenue, and they can protect local producers from import competition.

In the case of Sri Lanka, 80% of government revenue is collected through indirect taxes. Indirect taxes are imposed on goods and services as opposed to taxes levied on income.

One argument to justify such heavy taxes on consumer items is attributed to the government’s objective of protecting and strengthening local producers. When a tariff is imposed on imports, the price of imports increases, giving local producers the opportunity to compete against what would otherwise be a much cheaper alternative. For example, green beans per kg is taxed 101% on the border of the country (CIF price). This means that if you buy imported green beans, you have to pay double the price of the true value of the good.

This is appealing to local producers as they can offer comparatively lower prices for the same good. Even though these policies can be seen as helpful to local producers, it truly does not help in the long-run.

Consumer loses out

When tariffs are imposed in order to help local producers compete against cheaper imports, the government effectively removes all market incentives for local producers to stay efficient and productive. The tariffs on imported goods guarantees that their main competition is priced higher than that of the local good.

The result is that you and I, the local consumers lose out on two counts. First, if we wish to buy local products, there is no reason for local producers to provide us with a high-quality, appealing good. Secondly, if we are dissatisfied with the local product and wish to buy an imported alternative, we have to pay a much higher price as this good is subjected to high rates of tariff.

This loss to the consumer is compounded by the fact that the high price of imports creates a large gap between the final price of the imported good and at-cost price of the local good. This gap can be transformed into a profit margin for local producers as they can increase the price of their good without improving quality thanks to the high tariff imposed on the imported alternative.

Should we continue to protect?

Our producers get accustomed to inefficient production due to a lack of incentives. In this case should the government protect local producers further? If so, are we carefully considering the trade-offs; the costs incurred for the consumers?

Protectionism is a heated topic in the country. Ever since the Sri Lankan economy opened up in 1977, various campaigns were implemented in order to protect local industries. Moving on to 40 years after opening up the economy, the first ever to do so in the South Asian region, we still lag behind.

Alternatively, what the government could tap into are technological investments with other countries, which would help in exchange of technology and innovation for low-yield, less efficient, protected industries in the country. This involves in opening up the economy for foreign investment and creating an investor friendly environment - relaxing most of the heavily taxed and regulated policies by the government.

Given that this regime of protectionism has failed, are we still going to ask the government to shield our producers from foreign competition?

How import taxes drive up the cost of living

Originally appeared on Daily News

By Ravi Ratnasabapathy

“The Lanka Confectionery Manufacturers Association (LCMA) is actively seeking Government intervention to introduce a ‘negative list of manufacturing’ to safeguard local firms engaged in the industry before opening up the economy to giants like India and China.” - DailyFT 25 September, 2017

The above is an illustration of a phenomenon that is common in Sri Lanka – an industry seeking protection from foreign competition. This protection generally takes the form of a tariff – a tax that is imposed on the imported product that is not applied to the domestic equivalent. In the above instance the LCMA is requesting that the existing tariff protection enjoyed by the industry is continued even if a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) is signed. (An item in the “negative list” of an FTA is not subject to the FTA). For example imported biscuits are taxed at a total of around 107% of price, if biscuits are on the negative list this tax would continue, despite the FTA.

Although a tariff is imposed, this does not generally cause foreign exporters to reduce the price that they charge for the product. Therefore the domestic price of the imported product rises by the amount of the tariff.

Domestic producers competing with these imports do not have to pay the import tax so have an advantage over the imported product. As the price of imported products rise, domestic producers have the opportunity to raise their own selling prices because competing imported products now cost more.

Will the domestic producer raise his prices? Yes, it makes no sense otherwise. If the domestic producer were to set his prices at exactly the same level he would if imports were not taxed there would be no point in seeking tariff protection from imports. They very purpose of the tariff is to enable the domestic producer to sell his product at a higher price. The domestic producer is thus better off as a result of the tariff.

What happens to consumers?

Domestic consumers of the product are equally affected by the imposition of the tariff. They must pay a higher price for both imported and local products.

In other words, the protection for domestic industry is actually paid for by domestic consumers, in the form of higher prices.

What of the Government that imposes the tariff?

The government collects tariff revenue, on whatever quantity is imported, although they do not collect it on the local product. The benefit that the Government creates for the local producer by raising the price of imports is collected by the producer. This surplus is called a “rent”, of which more below.

We thus have two domestic winners (domestic producers and the government) and one domestic loser (domestic consumers) because of the imposition of a tariff.

The local producer who is able to charge a higher price from the consumer thanks to the tariff on competing imports is said to enjoy a “rent”. In economics, a “rent”, is an unearned reward. The producer is able to charge a higher price not because of superior quality or service but because a tax imposed by the Government.

If the producer was able to charge a higher price because of better quality, even while cheaper imports were available the producer would be earning the premium price. There is an important distinction here.

Consumers would only buy a more expensive product while lower priced products are available is if they valued what they were getting. The producer must do something extra to persuade consumers that his product is superior and worth paying a higher price.

When a tariff raises the price of imports, local producers are able to charge higher prices with no increase in value to the consumers. Given a choice consumers may well chose cheaper alternatives – but the tariff makes sure that the alternative is no longer cheap. Consumers are thus forced to pay a higher price, not because they want to but because there is no alternative. This is why the premium in this instance is said to be unearned. Consumers do not perceive better value but pay more.

Thus producers gain at the expense of consumers. As noted before, it is domestic consumers (not foreign producers) who pay for the protection of domestic industries. The net impact is a transfer of wealth, from consumer to producer that is facilitated by the tariff.  Is this good policy?

If it were confined to a handful of industries it may not matter much, but in Sri Lanka it is all-pervasive. Over thirty common household items affected are listed below. This is only a selection-many others are affected. It explains why Sri Lanka’s cost of living is so high. All necessities from food (fruit, meats, pasta, jams) to toiletries (soap, shampoo, toothpaste) to household products attract taxes from 62%-101%.

Food Items total tax

Sri Lankan consumers suffer a high cost of living in order to support domestic industries. There is an argument that supporting local producers to build an industrial base will accelerate growth in the long run.

Japan, Korea and Taiwan practiced industrial policy(IP), but even proponents of the policy admit that care is needed to pick the right industries. In Japan and Korea the main industries were steel, shipbuilding, heavy electrical equipment, chemicals and later cars. Taiwan had light manufacturing (electrical appliances, textiles) before moving to heavy and chemical industries and electronics.

Sri Lanka seems to want to emulate this in toiletries, household cleaning products and food: soap, shampoo, washing powder, floor polish, pasta, cheese and biscuits.

Personal Care items tax

To succeed, industrial policies need to foster a structural transformation in the economy that leads to rapid creation of jobs, especially more productive and better jobs. Selecting the right industries is important.

“it matters how realistically the target industries are selected in light of the country’s technological capabilities and world market conditions” [1]

Krugman [2] summarises some criteria advanced by proponents of IP in selecting sectors:

  1. High value-added per worker. Real income can rise only if resources flow to businesses that add greater value per employee.

  2. Linkage industries-such as steel and semiconductors. Industries whose outputs are used as inputs by other industries can create a cycle of industrialization. In Japan cheap, high quality steel gave downstream industries-ships, automobiles, rails, locomotives, heavy electrical equipment-a competitive advantage.

  3. Present or future competitiveness on world markets. If the industry can meet this test, we can presume that resources are being allocated efficiently. Competitiveness is critical for linkage benefits to flow.

The selected industries need to target exports (albeit not exclusively)– to achieve scale economies and because it provides a “tangible criterion for the policy makers to judge the performances of the enterprises promoted by the government” [3]. The failure to promote exports is the key reason for failure of industrial policy in Latin America. (Chang, 2009)

The exports focus also ensures competitiveness. The purpose of policy is not to protect inefficiency but improve productivity.

Therefore support for industry must be conditional-on meeting performance targets.

“The results of industrial policy (or indeed of any policy in general) depends critically on how effectively the state can monitor the outcome that is desired, and change the allocation and terms of support in the light of emerging  results” [4]

Deliberation Councils were set up in Japan and Korea which would set targets together with industry. To ensure targets were stringent they also involved independent technical experts, academics and others.

Performance would be monitored and targets revised. Where a policy was seen to be ineffective it would be revised. Industrial policy is not only about picking winners but also phasing out losers.

“The success of industrial policy depends critically on how willing and able the government is to discipline the recipients of the rents that it creates through various policy means (tariffs, subsidies, entry barriers). The point is that the suspension of market discipline, which is inevitable in the conduct of industrial policy, means that the government has to play the role of a disciplinarian” [5].

This requires a bureaucracy insulated from political pressure to take impartial decisions on the support to industry-and change or withdraw support, depending on performance.

“How closely the government interacts with the private sector while not becoming its hostage is very important.” [6]

It becomes clear that successful industrial policy is a sophisticated partnership between industry and state, governed by the underlying principles of competitiveness and productivity. Unfortunately what takes place in Sri Lanka is unlike that of East Asia but similar to Latin America.

“Import substitution policies got a bad name, especially in Latin America, because the industries that were created often only survived as the result of protection. It was particularly costly when countries protected intermediate goods, because that made goods farther down the production chain less competitive. Countries often paid a high price for this kind of protectionism, and the maintenance of this protection was often associated with corruption.” [7]


[1] Chang, H. J, 2006. Industrial policy in East Asia – lessons for Europe. An industrial policy for Europe? From concepts to action EIB Papers, [Online]. Vol 2 No.6, 106-132. (Accessed 07 January 2019)

[2] Paul R. Krugman, 1983. Targeted Industrial Policies: Theory and Evidence. [Online] (Accessed 07 January 2019)

[3] Ibid

[4] M Khan, 2018. The Role of Industrial Policy:Lessons from Asia. [Online] (Accessed 07 January 2019)

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Joseph E. Stiglitz. Industrial Policy, Learning, and Development. [Online] (Accessed 07 January 2019)


For the full list of taxes on Food Items, Household Items and Personal Care items, click here.

Import Taxes and the Cost of Living

Originally appeared on Echelon

By Ravi Ratnasabapathy

The Encylopaedia Brittanica defines the cost of living as the “monetary cost of maintaining a particular standard of living, usually measured by calculating the average cost of a number of specific goods and services required by a particular group.”

Cost of Living is the most fundamental measure of well-being; how good a life we can lead, the degree of comfort we have, and the number and types of products and services that we can buy.

In a modern society everybody is a consumer, no one is self-sufficient. The prices we pay for our food and clothing, our necessities and luxuries, and everything else in between are what determine our cost of living.

Naturally, for anyone other than a committed ascetic this is the most important aspect of life. For any politician sensitive to the public it should top the list of priorities.

A lot of our daily necessities, from food to household products are imported. This should allow us to take advantage global efficiencies to source the cheapest or best products, depending what people want. Unfortunately high taxes and poor trade policies drive up end-costs for consumers in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka imposes a variety of taxes on imports: customs duty, VAT, Port and Airport Levy, Nation Building Tax and Cess. Although the maximum customs duty is only 30%, once these other taxes are added the total tax can increase to anywhere from 50% to 100%.

Heavy taxes are imposed on food (meat, dairy, vegetables, fruit, coffee, cocoa, pasta, breakfast cereal, biscuits, jams); personal care (soap, shampoo, toothpaste, diapers, sanitary napkins, shaving cream, razors), household care ( washing powder, wet wipes, polishes, brooms, brushes),  children’s needs (diapers, pens, pencils, pencil sharpeners, toys).

2.jpg

Older generations who experienced pre-1970s Sri Lanka may recall people cleaning their teeth with fingers (using charcoal or something called ‘tooth powder’), scrubbing dishes with a pol-mudda (coconut husk) or washing clothes by dashing them on a rock.

Toothpaste, washing powder, soap and shampoo are no longer luxuries; if they were a high tax may be understandable but they are necessities, even for the less well-off. Perversely luxuries like perfumes, wristwatches sunglasses are taxed the most lightly.

Personal Care taxes.jpg

This has a significant impact on overall household budgets and the standard of living.

Household Taxes. jpg

Voters need to ask our politicians why they need to tax these items so heavily. Baloo, the bear in the Disney cartoon sang of the bare necessities of life. Our leaders need to understand just how far their tax and trade policies are putting necessities out of reach for ordinary people; the main reason why so many seek opportunities overseas. Local salaries cannot keep up with the cost of living.

For full list of taxes, click here.

Some of the tariffs generate revenue for the government but many are imposed to protect local industry. Tariff protection for local industry comes at a cost: high prices for consumers. Supporting local industry is laudable but instead of protection the support should be targeted to help improve competitiveness and productivity. Firm level productivity depends on:

  1. the sophistication with which domestic companies or foreign subsidiaries operating in the country compete, and

  2.  the quality of the microeconomic business environment in which they operate.

Government support to upgrade technology, worker skills, improve access to capital, R&D and infrastructure is positive. These, together with more efficient government processes, improved infrastructure, more advanced research institutions-in short a healthier business environment; can yield long term productivity gains for the economy and the firm. Competitive pressure provides the incentive to improve productivity; the Government needs to work with firms to help this happen.  

Price protection for local industry is a blunt tool that hurts consumers and incubates inefficiency. Industry has demanded this for centuries; the French economist Frederic Bastiat explored this in satirical essay in 1845 that addresses the essence protection. It is reproduced, in an edited form, below:

A PETITION

From the Manufacturers of Candles, Tapers, Lanterns, sticks, Street Lamps, Snuffers, and Extinguishers, and from Producers of Tallow, Oil, Resin, Alcohol, and Generally of Everything Connected with Lighting.

To the Honourable Members of the Chamber of Deputies.

Open letter to the French Parliament, originally published in 1845

Gentlemen:

You are on the right track. You reject abstract theories and have little regard for abundance and low prices. You concern yourselves mainly with the fate of the producer. You wish to free him from foreign competition, that is, to reserve the domestic market for domestic industry.

.....We are suffering from the ruinous competition of a rival who apparently works under conditions so far superior to our own for the production of light that he is flooding the domestic market with it at an incredibly low price; for the moment he appears, our sales cease, all the consumers turn to him, and a branch of French industry whose ramifications are innumerable is all at once reduced to complete stagnation. This rival, which is none other than the sun, is waging war on us so mercilessly we suspect he is being stirred up against us by perfidious Albion (excellent diplomacy nowadays!), particularly because he has for that haughty island a respect that he does not show for us. 

We ask you to be so good as to pass a law requiring the closing of all windows, dormers, skylights, inside and outside shutters, curtains, casements, bull's-eyes, deadlights, and blinds — in short, all openings, holes, chinks, and fissures through which the light of the sun is wont to enter houses, to the detriment of the fair industries with which, we are proud to say, we have endowed the country, a country that cannot, without betraying ingratitude, abandon us today to so unequal a combat.

Be good enough, honourable deputies, to take our request seriously, and do not reject it without at least hearing the reasons that we have to advance in its support. 

First, if you shut off as much as possible all access to natural light, and thereby create a need for artificial light, what industry in France will not ultimately be encouraged? 

If France consumes more tallow, there will have to be more cattle and sheep, and, consequently, we shall see an increase in cleared fields, meat, wool, leather, and especially manure, the basis of all agricultural wealth. 

If France consumes more oil, we shall see an expansion in the cultivation of the poppy, the olive, and rapeseed. These rich yet soil-exhausting plants will come at just the right time to enable us to put to profitable use the increased fertility that the breeding of cattle will impart to the land. 

Our moors will be covered with resinous trees. Numerous swarms of bees will gather from our mountains the perfumed treasures that today waste their fragrance, like the flowers from which they emanate. Thus, there is not one branch of agriculture that would not undergo a great expansion. 

The same holds true of shipping. Thousands of vessels will engage in whaling, and in a short time we shall have a fleet capable of upholding the honour of France and of gratifying the patriotic aspirations of the undersigned petitioners, chandlers, etc. 

But what shall we say of the specialities of Parisian manufacture? Henceforth you will behold gilding, bronze, and crystal in candlesticks, in lamps, in chandeliers, in candelabra sparkling in spacious emporia compared with which those of today are but stalls. 

......Will you tell us that, though we may gain by this protection, France will not gain at all, because the consumer will bear the expense? 

We have our answer ready: 

You no longer have the right to invoke the interests of the consumer. You have sacrificed him whenever you have found his interests opposed to those of the producer. You have done so in order to encourage industry and to increase employment. For the same reason you ought to do so this time too. 

....The question, and we pose it formally, is whether what you desire for France is the benefit of consumption free of charge or the alleged advantages of onerous production. Make your choice, but be logical; for as long as you ban, as you do, foreign coal, iron, wheat, and textiles, in proportion as their price approaches zero, how inconsistent it would be to admit the light of the sun, whose price is zero all day long!


For the full list of taxes, click here.