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Sin Taxes Are a Shame

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Sly industry-sponsored ads in which ordinary Americans worry about some scheme in Congress generally irritate me. A grunt greeted the TV spot you've no doubt seen: A woman unloading groceries frets over a proposed "tax on juice, milk and soda" as Americans like her count every penny. She doesn't mention that the tax would be on sugar-laden juices and sodas, or that the "milk" in question would be chocolate milk. Nor does she note that it would help pay for health care reform.

But the American Beverage Association has a point. Why tax Coca Cola -- rather than Mars bars or, for that matter, Mrs. Paul's fish sticks? The rationale is that sugary drinks worsen the obesity problem, which adds mightily to America's medical bills. Therefore, it makes sense to have the people using these products subsidize health care.

But it doesn't make sense. People gain weight when they consume more calories than they burn off in activities. It doesn't matter where the calories come from. And it's unfair to pick on one food item -- or any food item -- as the cause of obesity. Why not tax remote controls?

It's also wrong to assume that overweight people end up costing taxpayers more money. True, obese people are more likely to develop expensive medical problems. But they are also more likely to die at younger ages. That means they spend fewer years collecting Social Security and Medicare benefits.

Similar points have been made over cigarette taxes. Several studies show that far from costing society more money, smokers cost less. France found that when you add the taxes smokers pay and subtract the years they don't spend in retirement programs, cigarette use actually saves money over the long run.

This is not to make light of overeating or smoking. These behaviors certainly pose health risks for the people involved in them. However, they are not the public expense many health experts say they are.

Special levies on things widely deemed to be unhealthy are called sin taxes. If interest-group ads trigger an allergic reaction, "sin taxes" cause a rash. How people spend their discretionary income should be no business of government. If a product is deemed harmful to society, it should simply be outlawed.

Yes, taxes support the cost of government, but for that, the income tax is the fairer levy: The people who pay more income taxes are those who have more income. Why put an extra burden on the poor lug who is addicted to cigarettes?

The king of all sin taxes is the tax on alcohol. Buy why? I drink wine and beer and sometimes harder stuff -- and don't think I'm doing anything wrong. Wine is at the center of many religious observances, and moderate drinking can help the heart. Where is the sin here?

Some cannot drink in moderation and are better off not touching alcohol. Those who can't control their intake are headed for an early death, and their shortened lives will curb their retirement benefits. This is not a savings society should seek, but one it should recognize. As the American writer Elbert Hubbard said, "We are punished by our sins, not for them."

Frankly, a soda tax is as unlikely as it is unlikable. Though Congress almost certainly won't go through with it, the American Beverage Association is not taking any chances and thus joined a $9 million lobbying campaign. Some $5 million of that has gone into television, newspaper and Internet ads.

I'd prefer that the ads talked about illogical taxation rather than housewives struggling to put food in their children's mouths. Clearly, my sensibilities on this don't matter much.

COPYRIGHT 2009 THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL CO.

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Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.

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