Thou Shalt Not Sin?

by Kenneth Hoffman in ,

It's no secret that Washington uses the tax code to do more than just raise revenue. Lawmakers also use it to influence some of our biggest financial decisions, with tax deductions for mortgage interest to encourage homeownership, tax credits for fuel-efficient cars to encourage conservation, and "bonus depreciation" to stimulate business spending. Washington seems to believe those incentives really work. And cynics argue that the real reason we'll never see a true flat tax is because lawmakers are loath to give up the power to regulate that comes with their power to tax.

Government also uses the tax code to sway some of our smaller decisions, too. This is especially true with so-called "sin taxes" -- essentially, fees we pay to consume unhealthy products or engage in unhealthy behaviors. As Adam Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations, "sugar, rum and tobacco are commodities which are nowhere necessaries of life, which are become objects of universal consumption, and which are therefore extremely proper subjects of taxation."

230 years later, sugar, rum, and tobacco are still taxed. (In New York City, a pack of smokes comes with a hefty $6.86 in federal, state, and local taxes -- the tobacco is extra!) The 2010 health care reform slapped a 10% tax on tanning beds. Public health advocates have proposed taxes on fatty foods and sugary sodas to fight obesity. And many Americans, discouraged by what they see as a decades-long failure in the War on Drugs, call for legalizing drugs, taxing them to shift profits from private cartels, and using the revenue to fund anti-addiction efforts.

So, how effective are sin taxes at balancing their dual goals of raising revenue and discouraging unhealthy behavior? Well, federal and state tobacco taxes alone raise nearly $30 billion per year. They seem to do that job just fine. But some economists find that sin taxes send the wrong message by legitimizing the behavior they try to discourage. Here's what Harvard Professor Michael J. Sandel says in his new book, What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets:

"A study of some child-care centers in Israel shows how this can happen. The centers faced a familiar problem: parents came late to pick up their children. A teacher had to stay with the children until the tardy parents arrived. To solve this problem, the centers imposed a fine for late pickups. What do you suppose happened? Late pickups actually increased."

Clearly, telling parents "don't be late or we'll fine you" sends a very different message than telling them simply "don't be late." And so it goes with sin taxes, too. Telling smokers and drinkers "don't indulge or we'll tax you" offers them implicit forgiveness -- that it's actually OK to light up and enjoy two-for-one Happy Hour so long as they pay the fee. (If you're reading these words with a cigarette in one hand and a Red Bull in the other, you can breathe a sigh of relief!) It may sound hypocritical for Uncle Sam to wag his finger at you with one hand while he reaches into your pocket with the other. But sin taxes have been around a lot longer than income taxes, and they aren't going away.

 There's really no "planning" we can help you do to avoid sin taxes. (We would just give you the same advice as your mother.) But it may be worth it, next time you pay any tax, to ask yourself "what's the government trying to accomplish with this tax? What's the government trying to get me to do?" Understanding why you pay a tax can make you a better-informed consumer. And that, in turn, helps all your dollars go farther.

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