12 November 2020

Tobacco Taxes

'Big Tobacco, Big Tax Avoidance: An analysis of the main tax avoidance structures used by British American Tobacco, Imperial Brands, Japan Tobacco International and Philip Morris International, based on annual reports of parent companies and major subsidiaries in 2010-2019' comments 

The COVID-19 pandemic has put significant pressure on public finances. The amount of money many governments have committed to address the pandemic thus far is staggering. Just months into the pandemic, the United States of America (U.S.) Congress approved $2.4 trillion to combat the crisis, and the United Kingdom (U.K.) government had already spent an additional £210 billion by August 2020. Recently, the EU approved a €670 billion COVID-19 recovery fund. 

This money has to come from somewhere, and many governments face a brutal choice: cut public spending (which, in many cases, has already been cut to the bone), or raise taxes, either on companies or on the wider population. 

An alternative option that would boost governments’ abilities to fund their pandemic recovery plans is for companies to pay their fair share of taxes (which, in theory, they should already be doing) and to tax excessive profits. A good place to start is with the tobacco industry. It has few equals when it comes to making excessive profits—profits that have been made selling deadly products that kill up to two-thirds of users. 

Further, smoking has been established as a risk factor for severe illness from COVID-19. STOP argues, as part of its Tobacco Pay Up campaign, that: “Governments have the power to hold the tobacco industry financially accountable for the harms it’s inflicted leading up to and during the COVID-19 crisis. They should use that power.”

The authors state

There is growing pressure worldwide for companies to pay their fair share of tax. One sector that has lucrative revenue and profits is the tobacco industry (see chart). Although the sector makes billions in revenue, it pays relatively little in corporate taxes. Tobacco’s Big Four transnational companies - British American Tobacco, Imperial Brands, Japan Tobacco and Philip Morris - make extensive use of the entire range of common tax avoidance methods. 

We did not find any clear evidence of illegal practices (tax evasion), but analysis of their annual reports and those of a number of crucial subsidiaries in the period 2010-2019 shows that all four have ‘aggressive tax planning’ strategies, in spite of their own codes of conduct suggesting otherwise. 

This report details the tax avoidance methods the four companies are using and describes some of the fiscal disputes they are involved in. It is a first report. Because of the complicated and untransparent nature of tax avoidance it cannot be comprehensive. Many questions remain, particularly concerning the final destination of the money flows involved. The logical endgame is that many ultimately end up in tax havens. In further research we will try to shed more light on this final step in the avoidance chain. 

Six European countries play a key role 

Six European countries play a key role in the elaborate tax avoidance strategies of Tobacco’s Big Four: Belgium, Ireland, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, the UK and Switzerland. Of these, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom clearly have a key role in facilitating conduit subsidiaries. The role of Switzerland might be similarly important, especially in the case of Philip Morris, but is hard to confirm because of its financial secrecy. 

€7.5 billion of tobacco profits (annually) pass through the Netherlands On average, Tobacco’s Big Four shift around €7.5 billion of worldwide profits through the Netherlands annually. British American Tobacco and Imperial Brands move these profits on to holding companies in the UK, Philip Morris International to a holding company in Switzerland. Japan Tobacco International seems to send them via the Netherlands straight to the parent company in Japan. 

British American Tobacco and Imperial Brands UK subsidiaries lowered their corporation tax burden by £2.5 billion (past decade) Using the fiscal instrument of group relief, the UK subsidiaries of Imperial Brands and British American Tobacco – both based and headquartered in the UK – lowered their UK corporate tax burden by £2.5 billion between 2010 and 2019. As a result, BAT paid close to zero corporation tax. 

IB’s annual reports are so untransparent that their actual UK tax burden is virtually impossible to determine. 

The 2015 BEPS guidelines (OECD) didn’t result in higher tax payments but in less transparency The introduction of the BEPS did affect Tobacco’s Big Four, though maybe not in the way intended by the OECD. The companies didn’t start paying more corporate taxes or stop engaging in aggressive tax planning. Instead, their financial reporting seems to have become less transparent. Tobacco’s Big Four use five main avoidance methods 

Shifting dividends 

The €7.5 billion Tobacco’s Big Four shift through the Netherlands annually, mainly consist of dividends from subsidiaries. BAT shifts around €1 billion in dividends via Belgium each year. Tax paid on these profits is less than 1 percent. 

Group relief, partly based on internal loans 

The two British tobacco giants in particular use group relief (loss compensation) as a major method to reduce their corporate taxes. Imperial Brands lowered their UK corporate tax bill by an estimated £1.8 billion over the last ten years. BAT lowered theirs by an estimated £760 million. 

At both IB and BAT, the losses involved regularly stem from interest paid on internal loans, resulting in eligibility for group relief. There are clear indications that at least part of these loans don’t serve any other purpose than lowering their corporate tax bill. 

As a result, BAT paid close to zero corporate tax in the UK. 

Notional (fictitious) interest deduction 

BAT parked around €3.5 billion in assets in three holding companies in Belgium, which from 2010-2017 helped it deduct several millions in notional (fictitious) interest each year. The notional interest deduction diminished over the years and ended in 2018. 

Profit shifting via intra-firm transactions 

We found several examples of profit shifting via intra-firm transactions. One is the sale – on paper - of all BAT cigarettes produced by BAT Korea Manufacturing Ltd. (South Korea) to Rothmans Far East BV in the Netherlands. They are immediately re-sold to another South-Korean company, BAT Korea Ltd, at a much higher price. This way, on average each year €98 million in Korean profits are shifted to the Netherlands. 

Royalty payments 

There are clear indicators that PMI and JTI use royalty payments (through the Netherlands) as a tax planning tool: - Philip Morris Holland BV annually pays between €25 and 29 million in royalties to a foreign entity. For the Dutch BV these are costs, so the taxable profit is lowered considerably. - 

Between 2010 and 2013, Japan Tobacco International Group Holding BV shifted about €250 million annually through the Netherlands as royalties. After 2013 they stopped reporting the royalty payments. It is however likely that this subsidiary continued to function as a conduit for royalty payments. 

Tax disputes and investigations 

Tobacco’s Big Four are involved in tax disputes in at least eleven countries over the last ten years, leading to claims by tax authorities ranging from €45 million to €1.2 billion. So far, in the majority of cases, the courts’ decisions have been in favour of the companies.

• Philip Morris has been / is under examination by foreign tax authorities in Germany, Indonesia, Russia, South Korea, Thailand, Switzerland and Turkey . 

• BAT has been / is involved in disputes in the Netherlands (a record claim of €1.2 billion), Brazil, South Korea and Egypt. 

• Imperial Brands is involved in three large tax ongoing tax-related legal procedures in France, Russia and the EU, involving tax claims totalling £672 million. 

• For Japan Tobacco International, we found three specifications of tax disputes, in Turkey, Russia and the UK. 

• In September 2019, the European Commission announced an in-depth investigation into tax avoidance by multinationals. BAT is one of the 39 companies under investigation.