The new tobacco tax in the United States took effect yesterday, which tripled the amount of tax collected on each pack of cigarrettes, and probably raising the cost of a pack to as much as $9. The tax is the single largest increase in tobacco taxes in history.
For an LDS audience, this probably seems all fine and good. You aren’t likely to complain about a sin tax if you aren’t committing that sin. And, to be honest, its hard to imagine a sin tax that LDS Church members would be particularly vulnerable to (perhaps ice cream?)
But even if we aren’t vulnerable, isn’t there a limit to sin taxes?
Here in New York State last year, State Health Commissioner Dr. Richard Daines, who is also an LDS Church member, proposed a new sin tax in the state, one on sugar in carbonated beverages, in an attempt to improve health in the state. As might be expected, the tax proposal was quite controversial, but was eventually taken off the table due to political concerns. If we as Mormons support taxes on tobacco, then wouldn’t the same logic lead us to support another tax to make us healthier?
And if we should support that kind of sin tax, why not a tax on those who fail to exercise? Or a tax on cafeine? Or tea? Or, depending on how you interpret the Word of Wisdom, perhaps even a tax on meat, so that it is eaten “sparingly?”
One of the great things that sin taxes can do, except for the affects of addiction and compulsion, is limit the amount the poor use the product taxed. A hope behind any sin tax is that it will discourage bad behavior and improve the health and welfare of the population.
We could probably take this exercise in another political direction, also. There are already taxes on alcohol, as I understand it, although perhaps they could be increased, if sin taxes are the way to go. So why not then taxes on drugs? Why not legalize marijuana and simply heavily tax it?
I ask because it seems clear that there should be some limits here. I think there is an economic limit to how well a sin tax can work — at some point the incentive to find ways around the tax becomes too great, and purchases are made outside of the tax jurisdiction or a black market arises.
But aside from those efforts, don’t sin taxes eventually raise other problems? Couldn’t they backfire morally — lead to worse sin, at least in some cases? Certainly there is even a limit to using taxes as a way to implement public policy.
Mormonism’s history has an element of trying to work for public policies that improve how well the world keeps morality — how much sin is avoided. So you would think that we would have an idea of what limits there should be on sin taxes. Morally aren’t sin taxes questionable, because they allow immoral activity to continue?
So, from a gospel viewpoint, what should the limit be? Is it even possible to say?