Taxation

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.

It’s bloody unfair!

Originally appeared on Daily FT, Ceylon Today and Daily Mirror

By Anuki Premachandra

Today (28) is Menstrual Hygiene Day. Most of you might not be aware of it because in Sri Lanka, we pretend that women don’t bleed. 

Poor menstrual hygiene is caused by a lack of education on the issue, persisting taboos and stigma, limited access to hygienic menstrual products and poor sanitation infrastructure that undermines the educational opportunities, health and overall social status of women and girls around the world. As a result, millions of women and girls are kept from reaching their full potential. 


In Sri Lanka, we treat access to menstrual products as both a luxury and a black market good. Steeped in social stigma, the negative characterization of these necessities have overwhelmingly resulted in a growing prevalence of ‘Period Poverty’. 

Period Poverty isn’t just another term 

Period Poverty refers to having a lack of access to sanitary products due to financial constraints. This problem is quite serious in the case of Sri Lanka. Commercially produced sanitary towels typically sell between Rs. 120-175. Imported brands can go up to Rs. 350, putting them out of reach for most women, thereby making it a luxury for some. 

The heavy tax on sanitary napkins is a key contributor to these disproportionately high prices. 

In September 2018, the Minister of Finance reduced the tax on sanitary napkins to 62% from 102%, following the removal of the CESS tax. The Minister for Finance Mangala Samaraweera recently mentioned in a Reuters article that he was looking at ways to reduce the tax further as he recognises the effect of period poverty on girl’s school attendance and the participation of women in the economy. 

The average woman has her period for 2,535 days of her life. That’s nearly seven years of depending on unhygienic cloth rags and makeshift solutions if sanitary napkins are beyond your financial reach. 

This is a classic characteristic of a luxury good. Expensive watches or perfumes are only within the purchasing power of some, because only they are rich enough to afford it. 

Unfortunately sanitary napkins have fallen to the same misfortune. Is it justifiable that something so essential as a pad is something that only those with financial capacity can afford? 

This year’s tagline is ‘Menstruation Matters’ and could not be more relevant to Sri Lanka. A few weeks ago, a Sunday newspaper ran an article on urbanisation that expressed views on how the ‘modern’ woman buys sanitary napkins in this country – indeed, a round peg in a square hole. Nonetheless, it is interesting to analyse the thinking behind this narrative. 

The writer explains how women in modern society now purchase their sanitary napkins in broad daylight over supermarket counters, instead of the sanitary napkins being sold wrapped in newspaper or brown bags in efforts to hide the identity of the product. There is clear disapproval of purchasing sanitary napkins out in open! 

Unfortunately, the ideal transaction etiquette the writer holds dear is more common in Sri Lanka than we’d like to accept. A few weeks ago, when I purchased a packet of sanitary napkins in Kandy, the grocery uncle went to great lengths to wrap my purchase up in newspaper, because god forbid if someone finds out I’m on my period, right? Some blame culture, some blame our values – but the result of this stigma is the imminence of ‘Period Poverty,’ which 10.5 million women in our country are burdened with. 


How does stigmatising our periods aggravate Period Poverty?

This little charade of hiding your pads and the norms which reinforce this act makes it almost seem like you’re buying a boxful of heroin, and not pads. 

Treating a product this essential like you would a good sold in the black market means that the social stigma around periods extends to the purchase of sanitary napkins. 

The stigma is so strong that stores don’t sell the product without masking its identity, women don’t openly discuss the purchase of this product, leading us to accept the product as it is, without questioning its price or quality merely due to the lack of open conversation. We’re made to accept whatever that is sold to us – at a higher price and with little variety. 

The local sanitary napkin market is dominated in Sri Lanka by a few brands. The protection of these brands is also why there is such a huge tax on the imports. When compared to supermarket aisles in India, Sri Lankan aisles carry very limited variances of the product. 

The demand for specific types of sanitary napkins differ from woman to woman – our physiologies are different. We barely see pads that are for example, organic cotton, washable and reusable, etc. in our aisles because when we treat pads as a black market product, we’ve put ourselves in a situation where we’ve just got to accept whatever that is available in our reach!

No, your pads are not a packet of drugs whose identity needs to be masked and sealed. No, it is not fair that pads are made expensive (through taxes and very minimal competition) to the point that only a selected few can afford them. 

This Menstrual Hygiene Day, I urge you to start having open conversations about issues of this nature. We need to change this narrative. Pads should not be a luxury. Period. 

Tariffs and the law of unintended consequences

Originally appeared on Sunday Times

By Aneetha Warusavitarana

The law of unintended consequences is a theory that dates back to Adam Smith, but was popularised by the sociologist Robert K. Merton. In short, the law explains the reality that when governments intervene to create a set of outcomes, as the theory of cetris paribus (holding other factors constant) cannot be achieved in a market situation - the result is a series of unintended consequences.

Colonial India and Cobras

This law is also known as the ‘Cobra Effect’, dating all the way back to when the British first colonised India. The British were understandably concerned about poisonous snakes in India, Cobras apparently being a source of some worry. The solution they presented was to provide a reward for every Cobra that was killed, creating a clear incentive for locals to capture and kill any Cobras in the vicinity. While this worked well in the short term, the British slowly realised that enterprising individuals were actively breeding Cobras; creating a very profitable business out of collecting bounties. Once this was clear, the British removed the bounty, and now as this was no longer a profitable venture, the breeders released all their Cobras. The final outcome of this was an increase in the general Cobra population, completely the opposite of what the intervention set out to achieve.

While this makes for a good anecdote, the economic realities of the law of unintended consequences are often more dire. Interventions into the market are often well-intended, but have the potential to backfire. A shining example of this is the case of tariffs. Forbes recently published an article which detailed the unintended consequences of a washing machine tariff imposed in the US. This well-meaning tariff was introduced to protect domestic producers in the US, and boost employment in that industry. If one evaluates the effectiveness of the tariff simply on those two criteria, then the tariff has been a resounding success; US washer and dryer industry created around 1,800 new jobs. This could easily be written off as a success story.

The Cobra effect on washing machines

However, the focus here is only on the producer, and the consumer has been removed from the narrative. The first unintended consequence was that as imported machines were now more expensive, domestic manufacturers could safely raise their prices, without fear of losing out on sales. The second unintended consequence was that dryers also became more expensive. As a complementary good to washing machines in the US, manufacturers of dryers saw this as the perfect window in which to raise their prices and increase their profits (clotheslines would save Sri Lanka from this unintended consequence).

Taking all this into account, according to Forbes, this has cost American consumers around USD 1.5 billion. One could argue that this increase in prices and resultant cost to consumers can be justified by the 1,800 jobs that were created. The reality is that each job is equivalent to USD 815,000 in increased consumer costs. This tariff policy effectively protects the local industry at the cost of their own consumers.

Why should Sri Lankans care about washing machine prices in the US?

While we can agree that this does appear to be an unfortunate example of unintended consequences, and that it is pretty clear that domestic consumers got a bad deal here, why should the average Sri Lankan care? After all, we have sunlight soap and clotheslines.

Sri Lankan consumers should care because the same unintended consequences that took place oceans away in the United States is happening here, in our little island nation. Tariffs have long been the favoured tool of successive governments. Tariffs sound really good on paper, and better if said paper is an election manifesto. ‘We will protect our domestic producers’ is a statement that tugs at the heartstrings of too many voters. The fine print ‘at the cost of domestic consumers’ is not something that is publicised, but it should be.

Tariffs have been imposed on goods ranging from household care, personal care and food. The price of items as diverse as school shoes and construction material are affected by this. The entire country complains about how the cost of living is too high, and unreasonably high tariffs are one of the drivers behind this. Unfortunately for us, the imposition of these tariffs create exactly the same series of unintended consequences that American consumers have to face. The price of the weekly shop an average Sri Lankan does whether it is from the delkanda pola, the closest supermarket or the handiye kade is affected by tariffs. A potato, even if it is locally produced is more expensive than it needs to be, because tariffs push the price of imported tomatoes up, allowing domestic producers to raise prices with the consumer losing out.

Tariffs on essential goods in Sri Lanka can range from 45% to 107.6%. There needs to be a serious re-evaluation of the role of tariffs in our economy – the rationale behind imposing them, the consequences of the tariff (which are well understood and cannot be discounted or ignored), and ideally a faster regime for phasing them out.

An ‘unhealthy’ tax regime: Is the Govt. stifling basic needs?

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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 Anuki Premachandra

This year’s global theme for World Health Day, which falls today, is universal health coverage (UCH) for all. In comparison to most countries in the region, Sri Lanka is in a positive trajectory towards this, with a policy goal to ensure universal health coverage to all citizens through a well-integrated, comprehensive health service.

UHC is a health care system focused on medical service delivery – it predominantly revolves around accessibility, affordability, and availability of healthcare services. However, in the case of Sri Lanka, health needs to be looked at from a broader perspective.
This World Health Day, while commending the country on a great public healthcare system and better access to water and sanitation than most other countries in the region, I’m going to explore the case of how some simple taxes on items that contribute to your health can lead to complicated concerns on your health. Are Sri Lanka’s tax policies depriving you of accessibility, affordability, and availability of proper healthcare, hygiene, and sanitation?

Taxing your menstrual health
Menstrual hygiene is not commonly discussed in Sri Lanka, having very little literature and understanding of proper menstrual hygiene management. This is also probably a reason why a basic item required for proper menstrual hygiene – sanitary pads – have total taxes as high as 62.6% levied on them, despite being a country with 4.2 million menstruating women. More often than not, women are compelled to use unhealthy menstrual hygiene products or practices owing to their monetary conditions. Naturally, an intervention like taxes only worsens this situation. The most appalling of findings is that unhealthy menstrual practices can contribute to cervical cancer, one that unfortunately has proven to fall to the plight of many Sri Lankan women.

Every year, 1,136 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and 643 die from this disease in Sri Lanka (HPV Centre, 2018). Cervical cancer ranks as the second most frequent cancer amongst women in the country, wherein poor menstrual hygiene management is a direct causal factor of this. Of our population, 52% is women, out of which 4.2 menstruating women stand the risk of being diagnosed with cervical cancer due to poor menstrual hygiene. If we are taxing something as necessary as sanitary napkins that contribute to healthy menstrual practise, are we not then making health a privilege instead of a basic human right?

Taxing your access to proper sanitation
In a recent interview, Senior Advisor at the Sri Lanka Water Partnership Kusum Athukorala stated that the main problem they have had to deal with when conducting sanitation programmes in rural schools is the lack of a proper disposal mechanism for sanitary pads. It is either this or the lack of proper toilet facilities. According to the WHO, although sanitation coverage in Sri Lanka is 92% – the best in the South Asian region – an area that they too have identified as one that requires further development is rural school sanitation. Period-friendly toilets matter.

Additionally, although over 50% of our population have access to household sanitation facilities, diving deeper into the breakdown of these numbers is important. Despite great sanitation coverage, 7.2% of our urban population, 7.6% of our rural population, and 17% of our estate population still rely on a shared toilet facility for their sanitation needs, according to the Household Income and Expenditure Survey 2016. Why then do our rural schools lack proper toilets and why does a portion of our population rely on shared toilets for their sanitation needs? The answer lies in the prohibitively high cost of building toilets.

Total import taxes on sanitary ware like commodes and squatting pans are over 60% and wall tiles, floor tiles, and finishing ceramic are taxed at over 100%. Out of our population, one million people live in temporary houses and 1.2 million people live in underserved settlements. Access to proper toilet and hygiene facilities are very limited in these types of households owing to the exorbitant cost of constructing one. Having access to sanitation is a basic human right, yet a portion of our population suffer on a daily basis from the lack of access to a clean and functioning toilet. Without toilets, untreated human waste can impact a whole community, affecting many aspects of daily life, and ultimately pose a serious risk to health. The issue runs deeper into societal impacts, such as teenage girls often leaving school at the onset of menstruation due to lack of privacy and the risk of contaminating infections due to unhygienic toilet facilities. This narrative needs to change.

An ‘unhealthy’ tax regime

This World Health Day, while we commit our country to global goals that provision for more accessible and affordable healthcare facilities for all, let’s also look at health in a broader perspective. In Sri Lanka, universal health coverage can be realised through affordability, accessibility, and availability of better health, sanitation, and hygiene facilities – end taxes on periods and toilets!


Anuki Premachandra is the Manager – Research Communications at the Advocata Institute. She has a background in public policy with an active involvement in policy communications. She is also an advocate for the reduction of the period tax and contributes to research and policy work in that subject area. If you have any questions or feedback on this article, she could be contacted on anuki@advocata.org or @anukipr on Twitter. Advocata is an independent policy think tank based in Colombo, Sri Lanka which conducts research, provide commentary, and hold events to promote sound policy ideas compatible with a free society in Sri Lanka.

A woman's monthly tax

In a country with 4.2 million menstruating women, only 30% of them use sanitary napkins (SAARC Chamber Women Entrepreneurs Council). This statistic is appalling and the truth in this is saddening. As a nation where 52% of its population is women, the reality that sanitary napkins are only an option to a handful 30% is an injustice.

A few weeks ago, we highlighted the absurdity of diaper taxes. The tax on diapers is so high that when calculated, for every three diapers bought, the Sri Lankan Government is ‘stealing’ at least one of them. The same applies for the case of sanitary pads and tampons where the government charges a colossal import tax of 101.2%. This 101.2% is on a woman’s basic need, but falls into the general pile of tax calculation without regard of its intrinsic value and purpose.

Are we so focused on our protectionist values that we cannot decipher how unfair and discriminatory it is to tax a women on something that is beyond her control?

A recent Roar article highlighted how most women cannot afford sanitary napkins and have to switch to using cloth rags instead. Cloth rags are both a sanitary and health concern. We are depriving women of what should be a basic right. The average price of a packet of 10 pads in Sri Lanka is Rs. 200. Imported pads are priced between Rs.200 – 250, and locally produced pads are also around Rs. 150 – 200. Protectionist taxes are meant to ensure that local production is boosted and that as consumers and women, we have diverse choice and a range of prices to choose from. However, the reality is that local producers actually have the comfort of enjoying a big profit margin per packet as the prices of the products in the market are high in itself, owing to taxes.

Import taxes on sanitary pads and tampons are calculated as follows:

Sanitary Napkins Tax Breakdown

We’ve also compiled a cross-tabulation of prices of pads and tampons globally:

Price per Pad.PNG

A cost of a single pad is 24% more in Sri Lanka than it is in USA and 26% more than the retail price of a sanitary napkin in India.

Price Per Tampon.PNG

On the other hand, tampons are limitedly available, and when they are, the price of a tampon in Sri Lanka is 20% more than it is in the states?

Aunt Flo’s visits usually are about 5 days long on average meaning that if 4 pads are used a day, a Sri Lankan women spends a total of Rs. 520 a month on something entirely beyond her control. This might not seem like a lot to most people reading this, but when you really look at it, for someone barely making minimum wage a day, this cost becomes a financial burden on them. If the average age of mensuration is between 13 – 45 years, this then means that a Sri Lankan woman spends at least Rs. 199,680 on sanitary napkins itself!

It seems like the rest of the world is progressing fast with global movements against discrimination and injustice. It seems like it’s about time we caught up with #MeToo and #Timesup. We don’t think it’s acceptable that you have to spend close to 200,000 just because you’re a woman. Do you?