19 November 2021
Anh Nguyen Source: BMJ Journals
Background The government of Vietnam is embarking on a radical tobacco excise tax reform, switching from the current pure ad valorem scheme to a mixed system by adding a specific component. There have been concerns raised by state-owned tobacco companies against this initiative that switching to a mixed scheme may shift consumption away from cheaper, domestic brands to more expensive, foreign brands (produced locally by joint ventures between multinational tobacco companies and domestic firms) and to illicit cigarettes, thus impairing the domestic industry, rather than reducing cigarette consumption effectively. Unfortunately, although this concern has been one of the biggest obstacles to the tobacco tax reform in the country, no study thus far has attempted to address it due mostly to the unavailability of relevant micro-market data with detailed information on brand choice.
Objectives This research attempts to study cigarette brand substitution patterns and quantify the potential effect of the proposed tax structure change on cigarette brand choice to inform tax policy discussions in Vietnam.
Methods A discrete choice experiment is conducted to collect data on smokers’ stated brand choice when cigarette prices change exogenously. Combined with data on their current cigarette consumption, random parameter logit models were estimated and then used to calculate brand-level price semielasticities as well as numerically simulate the impact of tax reforms on smoking.
Results Smokers are more likely to substitute a low-priced domestic brand with another domestic brand than either with a foreign brand or with an illicit brand, both of which are more expensive. Furthermore, the opt-out is one of the closest substitutes to low-priced brands and also the most sensitive to a change in their prices, implying that smokers of low-priced brands are more likely to buy none of the studied brands when cigarette prices increase. This provides strong suggestive evidence that they appear more likely to stop smoking when faced with higher cigarette prices. Imposing a specific tax tends to reduce the market share for both low-priced and high-priced licit brands, although the estimated market share reduction is larger for the former. In response to specific tax increases, a large share of current smokers do not intend to switch to illegal cigarette brands, but rather choose none of the experimented brands, suggesting their intention to quit. Finally, the magnitude of substitution to illicit brands tends to be negatively related to change in their prices as a result of the specific excise tax hike.
Conclusion Contrary to the raised concern, smokers are more likely to substitute a domestic brand with another domestic brand than with a foreign brand. Moreover, the threat of illicit trade should not be exaggerated, and there are actions that the government of Vietnam can take to mitigate the threat effectively.