Citation suggestion: Emanuele Bracco, EB (2023). Fiscal forward guidance: how tax policy can be used for non-fiscal objectives. Future Europe, 3(1), 46–53.
Tax policy primarily aims to raise revenue to service public debt and finance government services and transfers. Tax policymakers often claim it can be used to pursue other goals like increased economic growth and desirable consumption behaviours. This paper explores how tax policy can be used to foster innovation and health outcomes, in search of a ‘fiscal forward guidance’. The focus is on tax policies that promote environmental sustainability through innovation or healthy consumption behaviour.
Environmental regulation may harm firms’ competitiveness, incentivise strategic delocalisation to localities with less stringent regulation, and foster innovation. Similarly, although regulations and restrictive tax policies on tobacco, alcohol, or sugar-sweetened beverages are intended to improve health outcomes, they may drive consumers to illegal or counterfeit products. This study reviews the theoretical underpinning of ‘good’ fiscal policy in these realms and present evidence of successful and unsuccessful fiscal policies to boost innovation and consumption.
In developed countries, governments absorb between a third and a half of the national income. Tax revenues are necessary to sustain government expenditure on transfers and welfare spending and to service public debt. The succession of the health crisis and the war in Ukraine has put enormous pressure on governments, increasing public spending on direct healthcare spending and transfers to face the socio-economic consequences of the pandemic. Higher debt levels have been reached, further reducing fiscal space to tackle secular challenges, such as ageing and climate change. Therefore, it is even more crucial for governments to determine ways to move the economy forward without the luxury of fiscal space, using fiscal policy efficiently to improve the country’s position in terms of innovation, sustainability, and health.
This paper focuses on two main fiscal policy areas: environmental and behavioural taxation. These two areas have seen an important evolution in the past few decades: as climate change has gained prominence in the political debate, an increasing number of countries have pushed for regulation and tax instruments that could curb greenhouse emissions and the use of fossil fuels; this push has also raised many concerns about the impact of this legislation on critical industrial sectors, such as automotive, chemical, and energy. Similarly, we observe a gradual and consistent increase in taxes on tobacco and alcohol, and the idea of taxing other specific food items, such as sugary drinks, is gaining traction.
These two broad categories of taxation share several characteristics. Firstly, neither is a major source of revenue for governments. Environmental taxation (mostly taxing fuels and energy production) accounts for about 5% of tax revenue in OECD countries, with excise duties and taxes on tobacco, alcohol, and sugary drinks accounting for even less. Secondly, politicians typically justify these types of tax policies as a way to achieve ‘better’ than simply collecting revenue: saving the environment, improving people’s health, and discouraging self-destructive consumption behaviour. Thirdly, many commentators worry about the potential adverse consequences of environmental and health taxes on the poorer members of society.
This paper is organised as follows: Section 2 examines the theoretical foundations of environmental taxation. Section 3 reviews empirical evidence on this type of taxation. Sections 4 and 5 investigate behavioural taxes on sugar, alcohol, and tobacco-related products, focusing first on the effects of taxes on consumption and then on optimal tax policy. Section 6 concludes and supplies policy recommendations.
The theoretical underpinning of environmental taxation and regulation
Economic theory has always been quite precise in the prescription for environmental taxation. Since Pigou (1920), the basic idea is that producing pollution imposes an externality on society, i.e. a cost not considered by the price system. Because this cost remains ‘hidden’ from polluters, pollution levels will exceed the socially optimal level. The optimal response is to develop a system that reveals this hidden cost so that companies can internalise (consider) it when making production decisions.
Carbon taxes (e.g. excise duties on fuel) and permit trading both precisely respond to this theoretical underpinning. Other types of regulations known as ‘command-and-control’ may aim to achieve similar results, but economists regard them as inferior. Examples include regulating which industrial processes can or cannot be used and mandating product standards or emission levels. All of these ‘non-market’ interventions require the government to ‘pick the winner’ in terms of which process/technology are allowed or prohibited, putting the government in a non-neutral position concerning technologies or corporate choices. The government requires specific information on certain industries to make sound decisions in this area, which may not be readily available. Command-and-control policies also fail to reward innovation and instead focus solely on banning/punishing polluters or violators, providing little incentive to improve one’s environmental record.
According to the OECD (2010), to be effective, an environmental tax should be directly linked to the pollutant and levied as much as possible on final goods or consumptions, allowing firms to freely take advantage of process innovation and technological possibilities to optimise their production around this tax. Another important element for taxation is its credibility and predictability. Environmental taxation dynamically affects the economy: a well-designed tax may spur investments in innovation and firms need to see a clear path ahead to make these investments, as highlighted by Akigit and Stancheva (2020).
However, from an empirical standpoint, the issue is much less clear. The evidence on the superiority of market-based environmental policies over non-market ones is sometimes mixed.
The challenge in the past years has been to find empirical evidence to support two competing hypotheses: the ‘Pollution Haven’ (McGuire, 1982) and the Porter hypothesis (Porter, 1991). The first posits that increasing environmental standards or taxes will compel firms to relocate polluting activities towards less demanding areas. This may even increase global pollution levels and disproportionately affect less wealthy areas, which are more likely to be the target of this relocation. This goes together with Baumol and Oates’ (1988) position, who stated that stringent environmental regulations may worsen a country’s external position with jobs, profits, and environmental degradation being exported to laxer jurisdictions.
Meanwhile, the Porter hypothesis contends that environmental taxation and regulation triggers process and product innovation to overcome or circumvent stringent environmental requirements. In some cases, the overall effect on competitiveness between gains from innovation and losses from regulation may be positive; this is often referred to as the ‘strong version’ of the hypothesis. However, in most cases, the overall effect is a loss of productivity or competitiveness, and the hypothesis remains true in its ‘weak’ form. Whichever version of the hypothesis is correct in a given situation, the direct result is that some of the costs associated with environmental compliance will be overcome by process and product innovation. Thus the cost of environmental regulation is bound to be systematically overestimated.
The empirical question remains: Can environmental policies trigger innovation so much that they may become a competitive advantage?
Innovation and environmental regulation
To address this issue, we must recognise that environmental challenges present at least two distinct market failure issues. First, pollution is an externality, and policies must encourage market participants to internalise this externality, such as through an emission trading system or carbon taxation. Second, environmental improvement is achieved through R&D and innovation activities, which are vulnerable to knowledge market failures. The inventor can internalise not all benefits of new knowledge because diffusion is critical to profitability and patents are not always able to fully protect innovation; additionally, diffusion may lead to further innovation, making it even trickier for inventors to reap its benefits. Fetter et al. (2018) provide an example of this: in response to public concerns about the environmental damage posed by fracking, the state of Pennsylvania imposed on companies the obligation to disclose the composition of chemicals used in the process, revealing their industrial processes to the public (but also to competitors). Evidence shows that companies decreased the diversification of chemicals used across wells, leading to a decrease in innovation. The overall effect of this case of compulsory disclosure on the environment and innovation is unknown, but this example shows how market failures in the property rights “market” of ideas affect firms’ behaviour and should be taken into account by regulators.
Additional market failures can result from learning-by-doing and path dependence, switching costs (consider the competition between hydrogen and electric mobility), and capital market failure. All of these various market failures necessitate tailored policies for specific situations.
Empirical works also faced a challenge in measuring innovation and establishing a causal link between innovation and environmental policies. Initially, data such as Pollution Abatement Cost and Expenditure or ad-hoc indices of environmental stringency have been used. Recently, the increased availability of firm-level surveys has been important in exploiting more granular data on this topic (see for example Popp et al., 2019 for a review). In fact, country or sector-level data are rarely detailed enough to investigate which parts of the economy are affected by innovation policies.
All these issues demand different policies: subsidies for start-ups are essential to overcome initial costs, especially when both learning-by-doing and path dependence are high. Meanwhile, subsidies to R&D activities help overcome the knowledge market failure and decrease uncertainty for firms, as there is strong evidence of a long lag between discoveries and commercialisation (over ten years in some fields). This is reminiscent of Rodrik, Velasco, and Hausman’s (2008) theory, who pointed out how to solve complex economic growth problems and critically analysed which of the many possible policy interventions may have the largest impact, acting sequentially rather than simultaneously in implementing policy tools.
There is sufficient evidence that regulation stringency (whether through market or non-market tools) decreases foreign direct investments (FDI) in polluting firms. For example, Wagner and Timmins (2009) studied FDIs of German firms worldwide and found that lower environmental standards typically increased German FDIs in that country, especially in more polluting sectors, such as the chemical industry. Environmental regulations also negatively impact employment in the affected sectors, but the overall effect on employment is usually negligible.
On a more positive note, Jaffe and Palmer (1997) and Brunnermeier and Cohen (2003) showed that stringent environmental regulation leads to higher levels of investment and more environment-related patents. However, the overall effect on productivity seems to be negative, supporting the weak Porter hypothesis, which states that stringent regulations both increase costs and spur innovation, but not sufficiently to make the overall effect positive. There is also evidence that this drop in productivity is short-lived and absorbed in a few years.
Overall, empirical evidence points to the centrality of public policies, such as R&D subsidies and environmental taxation, in fostering innovation where it is most needed. When environmental policies are implemented, costs and regulations are imposed on firms; over time, the productivity decline is partially recovered through innovation. This means that the costs imposed on the economy by stricter environmental regulations or taxes are frequently lower than expected and pose only a minor risk to firm international competitiveness.
Tobacco, tax, and drinks
Another area in which tax policy has been used to achieve non-revenue goals is the so-called ‘sin taxes’, i.e., taxation on goods considered harmful or immoral, such as alcohol, tobacco, and more recently, sugar-sweetened drinks. At times, these go under the more neutral name of ‘behavioural taxes’, i.e., taxes whose main aim is to affect people’s behaviour and consumption choices.
The rationale for taxing these products, like environmental policies, is based primarily on the externality they cause to consumers’ health. Some of these products are also addictive, and to the concept of externality, we must add the notion of internality: the harm caused by consumers’ insufficient ability to anticipate the addictive power of specific goods and thus incorrectly predict their capacity for self-control once they begin consuming them, resulting in excessive consumption.
Also, in this realm, policy makers typically rely on market- and non-market -based policies. Non-market policies include smoking bans in public spaces, by age or quantity, limits on advertising, and prescriptions on packaging. However, market policies directly intervene on product prices via excise duties and taxes.
Prima facie behavioural taxes on tobacco, alcohol, and beverages mostly involve raising revenues and discouraging consumption behaviours deemed harmful, with little dynamic effects regarding product innovation.
The recent proliferation of non-combustible nicotine and tobacco products (NNTP), such as e-cigarettes or vaping devices, can be viewed as a market response to meet the demand for tobacco-related products in less harmful ways. In this regard, both environmental and behavioural taxation show us how tax policies have substantial dynamic effects, incentivising producers to pursue better alternatives through profit signalling.
Consumer product data is widely available, thanks to detailed retail surveys such as the Nielsen Retail Survey. Evidence overwhelmingly found that taxes are at least partially transmitted onto prices, and consumers respond to higher prices by cutting their consumption. Wagenaar et al. (2009) performed a meta-analysis on alcohol taxation and found that a 1% increase in alcohol prices decreased consumption between 0.51% and 0.77%. The overall health effects may be more difficult to estimate, as often consumers who engage in heavier drinking (and therefore take higher risks on their health) are also the ones with the more rigid demand for alcohol, i.e., the ones who are less sensitive to price changes.
The concern for the increasing obesity rates, especially in the US, has brought some localities to tax sugar-sweetened drinks. Consumers also react to prices (in response to increased taxation) when it comes to soft drinks. The most well known example is described by Seiler (2019) on the city of Philadelphia, where a tax on sugary drinks resulted in a 22% decrease in consumption and a 16% decrease in caloric intake. These results are particularly intriguing because they highlight an important feature of many tax increases: consumers affected by the hike also engaged in ‘tax avoidance’ by increasing their out-of-town purchases. We can compare this behaviour to that described in the ‘Pollution Haven’ hypothesis, in which environmental taxation or regulation simply pushes polluters towards laxer jurisdictions.
One main difference between sugary drinks and alcohol is how taxes are typically designed: taxes on sugary drinks are closely linked with the amount of (added) sugar, making a strong and clear link between the harmful substance and the tax levied. For alcohol consumption, taxation follows more complicated patterns, as it is also heavily affected by the different types of alcohol and how both politicians and voters perceive them. France and Italy for example do not tax wines, but tax spirits, whereas the UK taxes more heavily wine than beer. In other words, the ideal theoretical link between the level of harm (or quantity of harmful substance) and tax is mediated by political and cultural considerations, as well as the goal of raising adequate revenues.
In terms of optimal taxation, the market for tobacco and nicotine products is probably the most interesting to analyse. Here we have several traditional products that are heavily taxed and are known to be harmful to health, such as cigarettes or fine-cut tobacco. They impose an important burden on society through increased health expenditure and decreased life expectancy and quality of life, causing many non-communicable diseases, such lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, and respiratory disease. EU countries have been coordinating their tax policies on these products, imposing minima across countries, with many countries, especially in Western Europe taxing cigarettes at a substantially higher level than the mandated minima.
In recent years, several alternative non-combusted products have been introduced in the market, such as e-cigarettes heated tobacco products, and in general, non-combustion ‘vaping’ devices. Because these products are still relatively new, there is little evidence of their long-term health effects. However, it is well understood that the most harmful negative health effects of smoking are caused by combustion. Thus, some health authorities and expert polls report that NNTP are substantially less harmful than traditional cigarettes (McNeill et al. 2018; US Surgeon General, 2018). Many people believe that non-combustible alternatives are especially beneficial in terms of avoiding noncommunicable diseases (McNeill et al., 2018), especially since some of the risk associated with smoking traditional cigarettes dissipates over time (Nutt et al., 2014).
Taxing according to the harm level
The coexistence of these new and old products on the market has sparked intense research and policy debate about the optimal way to tax them while preserving both revenue and health concerns.
Theoretically, just as with pollution or alcohol, the optimal way to tax a harmful good would be to tax it according to its level of harm, allowing consumers to fully internalise the externality resulting from its consumption. Furthermore, the tobacco industry is complicated. Because of the existence of so many different products, one cannot ignore the potential interaction between these markets and how taxation of one good may affect consumption of another.
First of all, we must determine whether traditional (more harmful, combusted) and innovative (less harmful, combustion-free) products are substitutes or complements from the point of view of consumers. Many of us have observed that people who used to smoke cigarettes are now using NNTPs or alternating between the two depending on the situation (which may be affected by regulation on whether one can smoke or vape in a particular location). Most studies based on Nielsen Retail Scanner data seem to point towards the fact that these products are economic substitutes (e.g. Allcott & Rafkin, 2020), which is confirmed by survey-based studies such as Pesko et al. (2020). Positive cross-price elasticities circumstantiate this: for example, Abouk et al. (2021) found that a 1% increase in cigarette prices leads to a 0.34% increase in consumption in NNTP, pointing towards the fact that consumers substituted cigarettes with NNTP as the former became relatively more expensive. The observation of dual usage may also be explained as part of the gradual transition of consumers from old to new products.
Because cross-price elasticities are positive and harm levels differ substantially, the optimal policy should signal this to consumers through visibly different levels of taxation, facilitating their transition to less harmful products. This may be seen as a ‘second -best’ approach because government programmes to convince people to quit smoking have minimal success rates.
A less obvious advantage of this approach is that the government would signal to producers their preference for less harmful alternatives to smoking, incentivising innovation towards the discovery and commercialisation of less harmful alternatives. In this way, the government can encourage innovation and ‘guide’ firms towards developing products that meet the government’s health goals.
In practise, NNTP and tobacco product policies vary greatly across Europe (and across the world). Some governments have decided to tax NNTP like they tax combustion-based traditional tobacco products, whereas others have maintained important tax differentials (World Bank, 2019). Many governments were naturally concerned that the introduction of novel (initially untaxed) NNTPs would erode their tax base and capacity to raise revenue from these markets, regardless of health outcomes.
As consuming these products involves both addiction and habit formation, taxation levels may also have long-run effects. It is well known that high taxation on nicotine and tobacco products discourages initiation but is not very effective in making people quit, for example. Furthermore, in countries with soft borders or organised crime, skyrocketing taxes have resulted in high initiation via illicit products. According to data, this has been the case in France.
Currently, the EU regulation has no particular prescription for novel tobacco products, as they were not sufficiently widespread when the directive was agreed upon. A revision of the tobacco directive is expected in the near future, and the policy debate delves on whether to impose similar or different taxation levels on NNTPs and traditional cigarettes. Imposing different levels of taxation would be completely consistent with economic theory, which suggests taxing based on harm levels, and empirical evidence indicating substitutability between old and new products. Substitutability that, given the lower damage produced by new products, should be aimed by public authorities trying to achieve better public health outcomes. Following along the idea of harmonising taxation between old and new products would imply a massive relative price change in favour of traditional products. Once again, as these products are substitutes, we can expect many consumers to return to traditional cigarettes as a response.
European countries have taken different approaches, with heterogeneous levels of taxation for NNTPs. The majority of them have established a strong preference for NNTPs. Some countries, such as France, took a different approach, imposing very high taxes on heated tobacco products and negligible taxes on e-cigarettes. Taxation on traditional cigarettes is also among the highest in Europe, more than twice the European minimum. This level of taxation for traditional cigarettes is the result of the decision to increase tobacco taxes beginning in 2017 (KPMG, 2021). The stated goal of this dramatic tax hike was to decrease smoking prevalence. However, data on the effect of this policy tell a different story. This massive price increase also harmed smoking prevalence, which increased in the more disadvantaged strata of society over the period 2000–2020. Some also linked this policy to the massive increase in counterfeit market, which now covers about 15% of total consumption (KPMG, 2021).
Similar policies were enacted in New Zealand, in which draconian tax hikes were implemented to curb smoking prevalence, with similar (inconclusive) results. Aside from having little effect on smoking prevalence, these policies appear to hit disproportionately the less fortunate strata of society, where smoking prevalence is high and disposable income is low. For this reason, New Zealand recently adopted a ‘Tobacco Harm Reduction’ strategy that includes differential taxation of combustion cigarettes and NNTPs, capitalising on the two products’ substitutability (Burrowes et al., 2022). New Zealand went further, banning combusted products for individuals born after 1 January 2009. Early evidence appears to confirm that the strategy of strongly nudging consumers towards better alternatives successfully achieves lower rates of smoking prevalence by substituting less harmful alternatives for combusted products.
Some EU countries are moving decisively towards the concept of incentivising progressive substitution. This is the case in the Czech Republic and Poland, where tax calendars directed to create a clear price signal able to guide consumers’ choices have been implemented (see Stoklosa et al., 2021 for Poland and EC Intelligence, 2022 for the Czech Republic)
Environmental and behavioural taxes will become more central in political debate. The disruption caused by the climate transition and the war in Ukraine will strain the entire manufacturing sector tremendously. Analogously, after being hit by the pandemic, healthcare systems will face an increased burden from an ageing population. In both cases, the government should use fiscal levers to achieve immediate goals, such as correcting market failures and using tax policy incentives to dynamically alter consumer and firm incentives. Governments may be able to direct the economy towards more sustainable paths through ‘fiscal forward guidance’ to meet the challenges posed by demographic and climate transitions.
In terms of environmental taxation and regulation, evidence suggests that environmental regulation has a minor negative effect on productivity, which is partially compensated by innovation (weak Porter hypothesis). Simultaneously, there is a risk of pushing polluting industries out of the EU and into less stringent jurisdictions (‘Pollution Havens’). This is problematic from an environmental standpoint, but it also jeopardises European manufacturers’ competitiveness in both domestic and international markets.
The EU is already moving towards a carbon border-adjustment mechanism (CBAM), in which importers to the EU will be required to pay duties proportionate to the pollution involved in the production of the imported products. Some importers will be required to report the pollution content of their imports to the EU beginning in October 2023, as a first step towards the imposition of pollution-related import tariffs. This is a highly contentious issue on many levels, including trade relations between China and the EU (and the US) and the potential impact of such tariffs on EU inflation. We can also expect the CBAM to be legally challenged as a (environmentally motivated) protectionist policy under the WTO agreement. One can imagine that in sectors that are both more polluting and more subject to international competition (and more geopolitically strategic), the EU will have every incentive to push for import adjustments that may prevent sector relocations outside the EU or (similarly) the loss of international competitiveness of domestic manufacturers.
Pushing for a leap forward in R&D activities is likely to be less controversial and more effective in the short and medium term. Considerations regarding the imposition of pollution-related import tariffs must also be made internationally, with the understanding that they will be subject to political considerations. Given the potential fiscal burden of such policies, the Union should consider providing financial support to national governments for such programmes, similar to the Next Generation EU funding and scrutiny infrastructure.
In this sense, some policy recommendations may be formulated:
- Market-based measures such as taxation and emission trading should be preferred over command-and-control measures to spur environmental innovation.
- Environmental taxation should be stable and predictable, indicating a clear path for companies to exploit through process and product innovation investment.
- Pollutant taxes, whether direct or indirect, help target and incentivise reducing harmful emissions.
- Mechanisms such as the CBAM will have to be put forward in international fora, to avoid EU firms to flee towards ‘pollution havens’ permanently damaging the EU relevance in some key manufacturing sectors.
- Taxing according to harmfulness should be applied in the realm of behavioural taxation, such as sugar-sweetened beverages and tobacco-related products.
- When substitute products are available (e.g. natural fruit juices or non-combustible nicotine products), the tax system should encourage consumers to switch to them by maintaining a visible tax differential.
- Clear paths of tax increases for harmful products while maintaining the tax differential for less harmful ones will guide consumers and firms towards safer products while ensuring adequate tax revenues.
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