Philadelphia may like to think of itself as the “city of brotherly love,” but its latest tax increase is not so friendly to the poor.
Last week the city council passed a regressive soda tax proposal that will levy 1.5 cents per liquid ounce on distributors. According to Quartz, the tax will apply to regular and diet sodas, as well as other drinks with added sugar, such as Gatorade, lemonades, and iced teas.
This tax on sugary drinks is what is often called a “sin tax.” This is an excise tax that is specifically intended to target certain goods deemed harmful to society but that we don’t want (or can’t) ban completely, such as tobacco or alcohol. The idea is that by adding or increasing the tax, it increases the overall price of the good, thereby lowering consumer demand.
Sin taxes are a form of sumptuary law, a law that attempts to regulate permitted consumption of particular goods and services. Throughout history sumptuary laws have been used to reinforce social hierarchies or class-based discrimination. Normally this would be done by prohibiting certain social classes from being able to purchase a good, like the 16th-century French law that banned anyone but princes from wearing velvet. But modern sin taxes try to express the same types of social disapproval in more subtle ways.