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The gap between the price of cigarettes and beedis, cheap tobacco wrapped in a coarse leaf, has widened after the government raised excise duties and slapped a 15 percent value-added tax last year. The lowest-priced offering sold by Ceylon Tobacco -- the only licensed manufacturer of cigarettes -- is about four times more expensive than leaf-rolled products, which are produced by a segment of the industry that’s relatively less regulated and has seen smaller increases in levies. “In 2017, we foresee the beedi industry capturing at least half the tobacco market, posing a serious threat to the legal cigarette industry,” said Ridley. “As the affordability of legally manufactured cigarettes continues to diminish, more consumers are expected to downgrade to this cheaper alternative.” Beedis accounted for about 44 percent of the total tobacco market last year, up from 20 percent in 2007, Ridley said. The share of smuggled cigarettes is expected to rise to about 8 percent this year from 2 percent in 2016, according to the company. The numbers for the market share shift being claimed for beedis are exaggerated, said Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne. The government is in discussions with farmers cultivating tobacco to wean them away from the crop, he said. Sri Lanka hasn’t seen any evidence of an increase in the market share of beedis as imports of tendu leaf haven’t climbed, said Palitha Abeykoon, chairman of the National Authority on Tobacco and Alcohol. Tighter regulations on the beedi segment are being considered, he said. The authority estimates market share using surveys that are based on prevalence of use and not stick count. The government statistics are based on officially imported tendu leaves, according to Ridley.

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Using cigarette tax hike as a solution has failed to work Price hikes intensified around the year 2014, and there was a sharp decline of 12% in legalised sale of cigarettes. During the most recent tax hike, prices for a pack of 20 cigarettes rose from RM17 (US$4.02) to RM21.50 (US$5.08). Illicit cigarette trade filled up the gap left by legal sales. Its penetration rate increased from 36.3% in 2011 to 51% in 2016. This resulted in an estimated loss of RM4.4 billion (US$1.06 billion) in government revenue last year. From the year 2011 to 2015, average cigarette prices went up by more than 30% . If the price hikes do deter consumers, there should have been a corresponding decrease in total cigarette consumption. The Malaysian government needs to relook at its future strategies Attempts to minimise the prevalence of smoking failed due to the absence of policies to restrict black market activities. The government had oversimplified the problem by assuming price hikes would decrease the cigarette consumption in lower income families. However, with cheaper alternatives available, the citizens turned to illegal cigarettes with price tags of RM3 – RM8 (US$0.71 – US$1.89).

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