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Asin tax: Taxing salt in the PH

The Manila Times logo The Manila Times 11/7/2019 Katrina Quirolgico
a woman smiling for the camera: KATRINA QUIROLGICO © Provided by The Manila Times Publishing Corp. KATRINA QUIROLGICO

Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.

A LITTLE-known fact of Shakespeare’s King Lear is that its mythos is borrowed from the European tale of salt. There are various permutations, as with most folk tales, but in essence, it is this:

“Deciding on inheritance, a King asks his three daughters how much each loves him.  In purple prose and obsequious flattery, the first two daughters declare their adulation, much to the king’s egotistical delight. The youngest, however, humbly states, ‘I love you like salt,’ whereupon the King banishes her for the meagerness of her affections. Before departing, however, she orders the palace to strip all banquet caterings of salt. Quickly discovering how bland life becomes without salt, the King realizes the error in his judgment and reflects that it is the youngest whose love he most needs; the garrulous flattery of the other two is the fat he must skim.”

Indeed, salt is the spice of life — most basic and most needed.

And yet, recently, in the Philippines at least, salt has come under assault — in the form of newly suggested sin tax on salty foods: an asin tax, if you will.

Last week, the Department of Health (DoH) hinted at the possibility of effecting excise taxes on salty foods: in the words of Health Secretary Francisco Duque 3rd, “We have seen the positive effects of increasing taxes on sin products. The same strategy might work for excessive consumption of salt. It might be the most effective way to go.” Duque even cited United Nations reports on the impact of high sodium/salty foods on inducing hypertension and other non-communicable diseases. The only other country where a salt tax is currently being explored is Thailand.

Apparently, according to a UN Interagency Task Force representative, Dr. Alexey Kulikov, the average salt intake of Filipinos is double the recommended World Health Organization (WHO) levels: “The WHO recommended level is 2 grams of sodium per day which is about 5 grams of salt. In the Philippines, it is about 11 grams of salt per day.”

Queued after sugary drinks, alcohol and e-cigarettes — whose controversial

implementation of excise taxes have made it pass Congress — it seems salt is the next sin. New economic “sins” are not unheard of. In other countries, red meat has been talked about as the next in line. In others, such as in Bahrain, meat subsidies have been lifted, making the good more expensive. Also being talked about globally in the roster of sin taxes are junk foods such as potato chips and candy.

Not surprisingly, the DoH’s hints were not well received, especially after Health department spokesman and Undersecretary Eric Domingo indicated that even the humble daing could be levied.  Party-list Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate of Bayan Muna dubbed the move “definitely anti-poor.”  Though left-leaning, he has a point.

Historically, salt taxes have never been popular, mostly because they are all-too-often not-so-veiled attempts at revenue-raising. In ancient times, before the invention of refrigerators, salt was the only way to preserve food so much so that in the Mediterranean and North Africa especially, salt was traded in weight for gold: one pound of salt for one pound of gold. The Jews were notorious for trading salt; in fact, in north African Arabic, especially in Morocco, the vernacular for Jews is meleh or melehi, the Arabic word for salt. Salt spelled food security.

Levying tax on salt, therefore, was lucrative — but widely controversial. Everyone lives on salt, and so a tax certainly translates to funds for the government. The gabelle salt tax in France in the mid-14th century and salt tax in India under British rule are perfect examples. So, too, will an asin-tax be, should the DoH succeed. Given public skepticism of current excise taxes on alcohol, e-cigarettes, and sugary drinks because of how it has been marketed in the Philippines as the funding behind the Universal Health Care (UHC) bill, this is the last thing sin taxes need right now: bad, insincere publicity.

You see, salt is not the culprit; bad habits are. As I have written in previous columns (see “Is sin tax just syntax”? The Manila Times, Aug. 23, 2019), the purpose of sin taxes is to change a pattern of behavior and not to raise revenue. If it be the latter, then that is poor governance. It is an unworthy government which takes advantage of its citizens.

The objective of sin taxes is not simply to fund the UHC; that is mere epiphenomena. The objective of sin taxes is to designate in the psyche what is “sin” and what is “virtue.” An unhealthy lifestyle is sinful; a healthy one is virtuous. Simple in theoria, strenuous in praxis.

One cannot just institute a tax on salty foods, make goods more expensive, and expect that move to translate into positive change in Filipino behavioral patterns. People need more. If we are serious about shifting behaviors, attitudes must change — and that takes work.  But a salt tax does little in the way of that work.

A start would be, as Sin Tax Coalition co-convenor, Dr. Anthony Leachon, suggested, negotiating with manufacturing companies to “reformulate their contents to be healthier.” Target problems at the source. Another would be to provide healthier alternatives.

Not so long ago, nine years to be exact, the Arabian Gulf countries were written about for their decadent and wildly unhealthy eating habits. Qatar, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Bahrai, and other emirates of the littoral had the greatest prevalence of obesity, diabetes and genetic disorders in the world.  Modernity, it was argued, had come too quick and as Gulf citizens basked in their wealth in superlatives, they, too, basked in fast food in cornucopia.

What did their governments do? They reengineered society.

A Sports Day campaign was instituted across most Gulf nations (usually the second Tuesday of February), where schools competed for prizes in camaraderie. Sports politics became more popular (you might think here of the Qatar 2022 World Cup bid).

Governments incorporated healthy lifestyles as part of their “national visions.” Development banks heavily supported nascent small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that assisted in these health-driven national vision objectives.  Hydroponic farms were funded. And expensive campaigns were run to encourage healthy eating and healthy living.

Now, the Gulf is home to some of the most vegan-loving, spin-cycle and gym-obsessed citizens. In fact, especially Kuwait, Qatar and Dubai boast of wildly successful entrepreneurs with out-of-the-box business models who focus on healthy dining options. All this in less than a decade. It is a difficult feat, but not impossible.  |

What can we do? Dr. Leachon’s suggestion is a good start. Another would be to encourage healthier dining options such as Salad Stop, or similar fare.  Perhaps support entrepreneurs with similar business ideas. National campaigns on pursuing a more active lifestyle would be salutary.

Subsidize or offer low-interest loans to places such as Sonya’s Garden or Dizon Farms where they seek to provide fresh produce in the National Capital Region.  I have always been baffled that in spite of being an agricultural nation, vegetables are more expensive in Manila than junk food. This needs to change.

Another suggestion would be to discourage — perhaps even tax — unhealthy dining options, such as the ridiculously popular Samgyeop or Ramen variations. The former encourages overeating — of fat-laden meats, might I add; the latter can contain thousands of calories in one sitting. It is these that are taxing on Philippine health, and that need taxing — not daing, or tuyo, or other foods of the less fortunate. In any case, taxing the “poor man’s” salty food does not do much in impacting the habits of the decadent middle-class spenders who make it a habit of eating out at these unhealthy establishments. These are the ones who need attention and re-engineering.

Further, taxing the poor man’s diet flies in the face of the ASIN Law (Act for Salt Iodization Nationwide) of 1995, enabling the less fortunate to supplement their diets with iodine, avoiding goiter problems and other iodine deficiency-induced ailments.

Tax alone will never solve a problem — unless that problem be fund raising and salting (pun intended) government coffers. But that is corrupt governance.

If we are serious about changing patterns of behavior and introducing healthier habits, we must not only chide citizens for their bad habits, in the form of excise taxes (though not necessarily on salt). We must also provide healthier alternatives to which they can turn. We need both carrot and stick.  One without the other is pointless.

Nay, salt is not the culprit. The fat we must skim are our habits. Salt, alas, is not a sin.

Katrina Lirio Quirolgico is an economist who holds master’s degrees in government and international history from the London School of Economics, and a bachelor’s degree (magna cum laude) in international politics from Georgetown University. She has trained at Harvard University on international education and admissions.

Follow her on Twitter (@kq_avisrara)

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