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Protectionism in the Global Drinks Trade

Truck and Trailer Approaching a City 1973 Jeffery Smart

I have to admit, when I first received this topic from WSET for Diploma Unit 1 – Protectionism in the Global Drinks Trade – I had absolutely no idea where to start. It felt quite dry, and there seemed to be a lot of non-wine knowledge needed – tariffs, World Trade Organisation, NTBs – um, what? Give me a sweet question about trellising or wine production methods. The topic could easily have side-tracked into politics (ie. Brexit and Trump, although this must have been the prompt for the question, no doubt. Sign o’ the Times), which had to be resisted, if only because the assignment had a strict word limit.

Funnily enough, like any study, the more I delved into it, the more I enjoyed it. Now the marks have come in, instead of having it languish on my desktop, it might as well be out there – especially as there is so much ‘tariff chat’ on the news at the moment. The footnotes have “dropped” out when I pasted it in to the blog but you will find a bibliography at the end. A word of warning, though – this is written in a traditional academic style rather than a normal blog post.

Protectionism in the Global Drinks Trade

1. Introduction and the tools of protectionism

Significant progress had been made since the Second World War in lowering international trade barriers, particularly those associated with tariffs. However, while there has been a decrease in tariff barriers, there has been an increase in non-tariff barriers to international trade, particularly those related to technical standards. In 1994, a multilateral trade agreement was concluded in the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which addressed the rise of non-tariff trade barriers, strengthening its positions on non-tariff trade barriers, combined with the establishment in 1995 of new enforcement mechanisms through the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Nevertheless, the increasing global nature of the drinks industry exists within a complex framework of international tariff and non-tariff trade barriers. While there has been tremendous growth in the global trade of drinks, along with considerable tariff reductions, there has also been louder demands for local protectionism, especially to protect local industries, which have seen more non-tariff trade barriers imposed on the global trade of drinks .

1.1. Tariffs

The World Trade Organisation defines a tariff as “customs duties on merchandise imports,” which “give a price advantage to locally-produced goods over similar goods which are imported, and they raise revenues for governments.”

In general, there are two types of tariffs: an ad valorem tariff and a specific tariff. An ad valorem tariff is calculated on the fixed percentage of the value of the imported good. A specific tariff would be a set-priced tax regardless of the value of the good. Governments then collect the taxes at the time of customs clearance.

The level of tariffs is constrained by WTO rules: all members are committed to set tariffs at levels which cannot be raised without compensation to other countries (called the “Most Favoured Nation Tariff”). Applied tariffs may be reduced or cleared in the framework of other preferential agreements.

For consumers in the importing countries, as well as exporters, tariffs are the most visible trade barrier as they increase import prices. Yet, the increase in non-tariff trade barriers is now more commonly becoming a trade barrier.

1.2. Non-tariff trade barriers

As the WTO succinctly describes on their website, non-tariff trade barriers (NTB) are noted as “red tape, etc”. Informal barriers can be a result of a conscious decision by governments to favour domestic over international goods, or it can be a by-product of practices and policies that are rooted in domestic institutions .

Deardorff classifies NTB into three broad categories, to which examples have been added:

  1. administrative procedures and unpublished government regulations and policies – includes bureaucratic delays and discretionary licensing (for example, import quotas or export restraints, which may favour domestic producers); rules of origin, antidumping, countervailing duty and other types of government investigation (for example, unfair trade actions may be used to foster a climate of uncertainty for foreign suppliers, such as corrupt and lengthy customs procedures).
  2. market structure – nations may differ in levels of public ownership, monopolization, and the regulation of economic activity (for example, competition or antitrust policies; foreign exchange controls and restrictions; or, domestic subsidies and industry bailouts).
  3. political, social, and cultural institutions – whether the nation operates under a federal system (i.e. United States or India) or practices preferential procurement in some areas; or, governments promote the national interest (“Buy National” policy) or to enhance cultural identity (local content requirements); or, if the country has inadequate infrastructure (for example, needing a certified EU laboratory in the country for testing products before customs clearance); or, embargoes to block trade (such as South Africa during apartheid); or, to protect health and safety or environment standards (for example, licensing, packaging, and labelling requirements; sanitary and phytosanitary rules; food, plant and animal inspections; import bans based on objectionable fishing or agricultural methods).

2. Protectionism in the drinks industry

2.1. Tariff barriers

Following the definitions above, a tariff on wine can be expressed as an ad valorem tariff, with one rate or different rates according to the price level of the product; or, a specific tariff such as volume-based (per litre) or alcohol-based (alcoholic strength); or, a mix of ad valorem and specific rates. In addition, tariffs can differ by type of wine (still or sparkling, bottled or bulk wine).

Specific tariffs based on volume are the most popular in Europe and North America, whereas ad valorem tariffs are more common in the Asia-Pacific region, with the exception of Japan and Malaysia. Overall, tariff protection is quite low in countries which have long been involved in importing wine (North America, European Community, New World producing countries, Japan).

For example, the countries of North America have the lowest protection of their domestic market in comparison to the tariffs applied to their trading partners, as the Wine Institute notes, “virtually all U.S. wine exports to the major markets, other than Canada, face tariffs that are double or triple those rates. For example, the EU import tariff ad valorem equivalent (AVE) is approximately 32% , Japan’s AVE is 22.5% and Switzerland’s AVE is 90% on red wine and 106% on white. By comparison, the U.S. import tariff AVE is 1.4%.”.

In general, EU tariffs for non-EU countries are: €32/100 litres sparkling wine, €13.10 for still wine up to 13% abv, €15.40 for still wine over 13% abv but up to 15% abv. There is currently free trade between the EU member countries, as well as trade agreements with Chile and South Africa (through the South African Development Community) who are completely, or nearly free of tariffs with the EU. In contrast to the US and the EU, the tariff level is high in countries which have recently experience growing wine imports, for example in emerging Asian markets.

For instance, India has notoriously complex duties with varying state policies. Alcohol is one of the most highly taxed products in India and the use of wine is discouraged by Article 47 of the Indian Constitution. In 2007, the European Union challenged India under their free trade agreement and requested WTO consultations on their protectionist policy on wine and spirit tariffs for imported wines, with high federal Basic Customs Duties (of 150% for spirits and 100% for wines) with Additional Duties levelled on top, raising the cumulative federal duty burden up to 264% for wines and 550% for spirits.

When India was challenged it exempted alcoholic beverages from the Additional Duties, and announced it was doing so in lieu of applying state-level excise duties on wine and spirits. The Indian government customs duty on wine import in India has been increased from 100% to the maximum permissible WTO rate of 150% and is 150% for imported spirits .

As India is a growing market for the Scotch Whisky Association, it has been lobbying for India to reduce the 150% tariff on whisky. Despite the high tariff, in the first half of 2016, sales of Scotch Whisky grew in India 41 per cent by volume and 28 per cent by value.

After China acceded to the WTO in 2001, its world wine trade concessions to its main partner countries reduced its tariffs on wine from 65% to 14% in the short space of 3 years. Canada and Chile have also reduced their tariffs to open up to international markets with a fourfold decrease using free trade agreements; Chile has set the highest number of FTA, reducing their effective trade barrier from 10% to 0.64% AVE.

However, as mentioned in the introduction, although the trend for countries is to decrease their tariff rates, some countries have diluted their WTO agreements by increasing technical barriers to free trade.

2.2. Non-tariff trade barriers

Technical barriers to trade (TBT) remain the main non-tariff trade barrier concern for drinks producers and importers. The following four TBTs most concern wine producers in various markets as well as, spirits and wine importers:

2.2.1. Wine Labelling regulations

The lack of consistency on health warnings, ingredients and languages on labels is a considerable cost to wine exporters. In 2014 it was reported, “up to half a million bottles of wine and spirits are stuck in Indian customs, according to importers, because labels are not printed in English or because many drinks, including Scotch whisky, do not list their ingredients.”

2.2.2. Oenological practices

For wines authorised into the EU, the wine must be produced in line with the oenological practices of the EU. This regulation may be based on health and safety, but sometimes the justification is seen as a technical barrier to trade by producers outside of the EU. For instance, the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics argued, when ’New World’ producers of wine use new and innovative processes that have not yet been proven to be unsafe on scientific grounds are unrecognised by the European Union.

2.2.3 Maximum residue limits of agrochemicals

Imports of wine products can be restricted where the residues of common agricultural chemicals in wine exceed specified maximum residue levels. These can be normal agricultural chemicals, but in another example, the South Korea restricted imports of French wine when French wine makers used powdered beef blood as a fining agent in wine.

2.2.4. Certification and testing procedures (conformity assessment)

To access markets, a complex sets of certificates are required, which may or may not be justified in protecting public health increasing the amount of time and cost involved. In February 2013, the European Union faced a market access barrier to China when Chinese authorities asked for the results of tests of phthalates in every consignment of wine and spirits from the EU. The EU argued their exported products are compliant with domestic health and safety in Europe. However, China was concerned about the dumping of stock. In turn, the EU claimed the testing to be an imposition of unjustified antidumping and countervailing measures on EU wines.

2.3. Other non-tariff trade barriers

2.3.1. Higher Domestic Taxes on Imported Alcohol

Alcohol and health is a legitimate governmental concern; it is a non-essential good and can be taxed as a useful source of extra revenue for governments. When governments discriminate against imported alcohol by taxing it higher than local products, taxes become an impediment to free trade.

In 2016, the EU challenged Colombia’s differentiation of domestic taxes based on alcohol strength. Alcohol under 35% ABV was taxed at a lower level than higher ABV imported spirits (gin, vodka, Scotch Whisky, etc). The EU challenged this under WTO rules as local aguardiente and rum fell under 35% ABV while imported spirits from the EU did not, and so, it was argued, were unfairly taxed .

2.3.2. State Monopolisation

National alcohol monopolies have existed to restrict the sale of alcohol, such as the Nordic alcohol monopolies: Vinmonopolet in Norway, Systembolaget in Sweden, Vínbúð in Iceland, Rúsan in Faroe Islands, and Alko in Finland. In India, there is TASMAC in Tamil Nadu and the Kerala State Beverages Corporation (with five dry states). In the United States, there are 17 states that have a state monopoly on the wholesale and retailing of alcohol and 200 dry counties where alcohol is prohibited or strictly restricted. 

Canada also has an alcohol monopoly in the form of the Provincial Liquor Crown Companies. In 2016, the BC Liquor Distribution Branch was requested by the EU, the United States and six other governments to stop discriminating against imported wine under GATT/WTO rules. The issue involved the British Columbia monopoly, where there was a “store-within-a-store” concept with a separate cash register for imported wines; meanwhile, domestic wines, or local BC wines, were featured on regular grocery shelves .

2.3.3. Intellectual property: Geographical Indications

On the one hand, the EU protects Geographical Indications (GI) as an assurance of quality. On the other, in the United States, GIs are administered by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and treated as brands and trademarks. Consequently, the United States views EU protection of its registered GIs as a way to monopolise the use of certain wine and spirits terms and a form of trade protectionism. Despite the 2006 U.S.-EU Agreement on Trade in Wine, the United States believes new GIs from the EU lacks transparency, often resulting in substantial bureaucratic delays and adding costs to trade.

Despite the political disagreement on the definition of GIs, there is agreement between EU policy on GIs and some US winemakers. In June 2016, Napa Valley wine growers “expressed their support to EU officials,” and argued “for expanding and protecting the use of GIs in the United States”.

2.3.4. Service Trade Barriers

Restricting the sales, marketing and advertising of spirits and wine is also a trade barrier, as seen recently in Turkey, with its stricter laws introduced by President Erdogan in 2013. The recent government ban covers the advertising of alcohol at point-of-sale, broadcasting and journalism, as well as internet sales, and even consumer wine tastings. Mandatory labelling in Turkey, on every bottle of domestic or foreign wine and spirit, must now clearly state on the back label, “Alcohol is Not Your Friend”. Outright restrictions on alcohol are a barrier to trade wine and spirits, although “rules disciplining this form of protectionism are less clearly articulated.”.

3. Conclusion and personal commentary

Recently, the case for protectionism has been proving popular again on a political and emotional level. Free trade policy aims to increase choice and reduce prices by allowing international products to compete on the domestic market by reducing or removing tariffs; in contrast, protectionism aims to “make local industries more competitive by increasing the price of exports or restricting the quantity of imports entering the country.” Although, whether a protected industry is truly competitive is debatable.

Despite tariffs decreasing since the Second World War, it should be noted that non-tariff barriers have been increasing since the mid-1990s. Recently, fast-growing new wine and spirits importing countries are setting up alcohol regulations which could prove to be non-tariff barriers. Indeed, in some of these countries, such as India, growing interest in domestic wine and spirits production could lead to maintaining (or raising) protectionist policies and stepping up support for local producers.

Scotch Whisky Association head, David Frost argues, the lack of tariffs in the EU for Scotch Whisky, “makes production cheaper, paperwork simpler and competition stronger and hence better for the consumer.” France (in the EU) is the biggest market by value of Scotch Whisky in the world, and despite the potential future growth in emerging markets such as India, Frost argues many discriminatory trade barriers in these markets need to be first “knocked down”.

Some economists argue applying tariffs to an “infant industry” as one of the special exceptions to free trade. Small local industries are given a chance to develop and become efficient producers without pressure from external competition. Using the previous example from Canada, wine from British Columbia may be a ‘unique product’, and according to free trade economics, should give Canadian wine a ‘comparative advantage’ with its trading partners. However, the markets are asymmetrical: Canada is only one of many producer countries in the EU and US, and a small one at that. Nonetheless, they were challenged for promoting B.C. wines over imports in their local supermarkets, which was seen as unfair to foreign wines.

Indeed, protectionism helped to develop the export success story that is today’s Australian still wine industry. Australia developed its domestic market in the 1970s by protecting it from imports, as a University of Adelaide paper notes, “prior to the 1980s wine import tariffs were virtually prohibitive, with imports rarely accounting for more than 1% of domestic consumption”.

However, the protection of an infant industry can “distort the market by raising the domestic price of the imported good above its world level”. When an industry is larger and developed, and export sales develop faster than domestic market sales, as happened to the Australian wine industry, or today’s mature Cava industry, free trade becomes more important than protectionism. It also encourages industry development through new competition. For instance, the impact of high sales of Prosecco after 2010 on Cava’s key export markets (UK, Germany and Belgium), has forced the export-dependent Cava industry to improve its quality image with the new premium classification of Cava del Paraje Calificado.

Apart from infant industries, the opportunity presented by increased technical barriers to trade, and other protectionist policies in the drinks industry, is for government regulators, such as customs and tax officials, or government wine laboratories for conformity assessment, for certification and analyses for wine products, and for sanitary and phytosanitary rules. For example, technical regulations may be important for health and safety reasons, such as the EU regulations applied to non-EU imports, although it was seen as a protectionist tool, as when Chinese authorities decided to assess chemicals in the wine (that are accepted in the EU) to stop what they perceived as dumping of excess EU stock.

There may be short-term benefits of protecting a fledgling local industry from global competition, but for outside drinks producers, or when that infant industry matures and needs to export to grow further, too much protectionism is a burden to trade. In particular, increased technical and non-tariff barriers. All things considered, more tariffs are not the right solution, especially when there is a free market solution: develop the necessary infrastructure for the local drinks industry through trade associations. Trade associations, such as the Scotch Whisky Association or Wine Australia, can help the industry to compete on the global market with marketing, events, advertising, government lobbying and research support for developing the industry.

Overall, there is more opportunity for the drinks industry with free trade rather than protectionist policies, however it is a fine balance: between developing the local diversity of the drinks industry while also removing market inefficiencies to global competition that may hurt the dynamism of the drinks industry, and consumers, in the long term.


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Image – Truck and Trailer Approaching a City 1973 Jeffery Smart