Indonesia: court upholds tobacco tax to fund health

Abdillah Ahsan
Faculty of Economics, University of Indonesia

Good news on tobacco control from Indonesia is rare. Recently, however there was a victory in the area of tobacco tax.

On 1 January 2014, Law No. 28 of 2009 on regional taxes was introduced, which allows local provinces in Indonesia to charge a local tax to cigarettes. The tariff is 10% of cigarette excise.

This tax collectively amounts to about USD 796 Million, a significant sum. Following successful international examples for funding tobacco control, a minimum of 50% of the funds raised from the tax are to be used for health promotion, in particular through public anti-smoking campaigns and enforcing smoke free public spaces. This means local governments have the authority to decide on strengthening tobacco control measures for their provinces and cities.

Unfortunately, five smokers challenged this cigarette tax policy in the Constitutional Court, calling for its abolition. Their argument was that the policy harms the constitutional rights of cigarette smokers as consumers by requiring them to pay both excise tax and local cigarette tax. They argued this amounts to double taxation, which is prohibited by the tax law and is unjust.

However public health won, and the suit was rejected by the Constitutional Court in May 19, 2014. In the judgment, the Court stated that in accordance with Law No. 11/1995 on Excise Tax, the subject of excise tax is manufacturers, distributors, and importers, while its object includes cigarettes, cigars, tobacco leaf and tobacco strips. In the provisions of Articles 26 and 27 of the Local Tax Law on the other hand, the object of local cigarette taxes is consumption of cigarettes and the subject of this tax is cigarette consumers. “Thus, there is a difference between the object and the subject of excise tax in comparison to the object and subject of local cigarette tax,” said one of the Constitutional Judges.

The Court ruled that the cigarette excise tax paid together with local cigarette tax is the “politics of taxation” to increase state revenues as well as provide compensation on the negative health impacts of smoking. According to the judge, “Simultaneous excise tax and local cigarette tax have positive impact on reducing cigarette consumption and improve society’s health.”

Several benefits will arise from the Court’s rejection of the suit and implementation of the tax. The first is that the local cigarette tax will increase cigarette prices, thereby making cigarettes less affordable, and in turn likely direct reducing smoking uptake among children. The second benefit is local governments will receive increased funds as revenue to go towards local development and increased living standards. A third benefit is the increased funding available to be used exclusively for health promotion and law enforcement. This includes anti-tobacco campaigns and strengthened enforcement of tobacco control regulations such as non smoking areas.

Together, these measures will change the scenario of tobacco control at the local level and enhance local government efforts to better protect children and the poor from the harms of tobacco. It represents a welcome step forward in a country that has been dubbed a paradise for tobacco companies due to lax regulation.