As occurrences of preventable diseases increase and the debt deepens, some look to “sin taxes” as an easy to solution to both problems. Thirty-three states have even gone as far as to implement a soda tax in an attempt to curb obesity. At first glance sin taxes seem to be a good idea, but they can actually cause more harm than good.

The Mercatus Center at George Mason University has just published a working paper on sin taxes and their negative effects. The study was conducted by Adam J. Hoffer, William F. Shughart II, and Michael D. Thomas.  They have found that taxing specific goods or services based on perceived “negative externalities their consumption generates”  is an ineffective source of revenue.

The authors summarize their findings in a recent U.S. News and World Report op-ed:

  • Lobbying: Millions of dollars have been spent to thwart taxation of the soft drink industry’s products and to prevent existing taxes from being raised. In 2009 alone, the industry spent more than $57 million on lobbying. Such lobbying expenditures are socially wasteful. How much money is now being spent attempting to block Mayor Bloomberg’s ban on 32-ounce soft drink containers?
  • Regressive taxation: Far from being income-neutral, such taxes are regressive because their burden falls most heavily on people with the fewest options—the poor. Low-income households who continue to purchase goods that are sin-taxed will have even less money left over to spend on other items.
  • Revenue not used for its intended purpose: Sin taxes raise revenue by transferring money from those who continue to buy the taxed items straight to the coffers of the public treasury. Taxing sin might be reasonable if the revenue from these taxes was used to address the underlying negative consequences of consumption. In the real world, however, money generated by the tobacco settlement financed general spending and not smoking cessation programs or treating smoking-related diseases. The social security trust fund has been replaced with treasury IOUs, and the highway trust fund filled by taxing the sin of driving will fail to meet obligations as early as 2015.

You can read the entire working paper, “Sin Taxes: Size, Growth, and the Creation of the Sindustry” here. Acton president and co-founder, Rev. Robert Sirico has also written about the consequences of sin taxes. You can read his “Hate the Sin, Tax the Sinner?” here.

  • Jim Price

    You are right that, taxes raised from cigarettes has been misappropriated by many states; millions intended to be used to warn smokers has been used for other state needs. Even so it has slowed up the habit of smoking so much that two of my friends, who are hospital administrators, say that their census is down , because fewer smokers mean fewer visits to the hospital. That’s good news except for the administrators who are struggling to balance the books.