Taxing Behavior: Personal Vices Have Been around a Long Time. but the Price for Those Habits and Other Controversial Behaviors Is about to Go Up

By Waisanen, Bert | State Legislatures, June 2004 | Go to article overview

Taxing Behavior: Personal Vices Have Been around a Long Time. but the Price for Those Habits and Other Controversial Behaviors Is about to Go Up


Waisanen, Bert, State Legislatures


What do individual behaviors and state tax policy have in common? Plenty, as it turns out. People who smoke or chew pay excise taxes on tobacco.

The same is true for people who quaff a beer, drink a martini or sip a glass of wine instead of a Shirley Temple. Included in the price of their purchases are excise taxes on alcohol.

Is this news? No. But alcohol and tobacco taxes are only part of the story of an emerging trend in states: the use of tax policy as a means to change personal behavior and choices.

Taxes on beer and cigarettes have existed through much of American history, either to curb what may be considered a vice or to finance outlays, such as war spending. These targeted taxes are usually imposed at higher rates than a general sales tax on other retail items. But recently the states are taking aim at other behaviors and trying to change them through the tax code. In their sights: Promoting healthy lifestyles and safer driving or discouraging adult entertainment.

XXX TAXES

The most novel idea passed in Utah this session. The Sexually Explicit Business and Escort Service Tax imposes a 10 percent excise tax on the escort and adult entertainment industry. The language was carefully designed to target the sexual nature of escort services and nude dance clubs, rather than other organizations that provide companionship or services that clearly are not of a sexual nature. The funds raised by the tax will be dedicated to a special fund for treatment programs for sex offenders.

NUTRITION AND EXERCISE

Obesity, particularly in children, is on everyone's radar screen. New federal research attributes $75 billion in annual medical costs to obesity, so there is significant activity this year to address its risks. Several initiatives seek to encourage better nutrition or more exercise through the tax code.

Legislation in New York would fund the state's childhood obesity prevention program by a quarter-cent sales tax increase on video game and movie rentals, sweets and snacks. They were targeted because they promote the couch potato syndrome among kids that can lead to childhood obesity and future health costs to the state.

Another proposal to boost healthier living would provide incentives to exercise. That bill gives a tax credit for certain purchases of exercise equipment, gym memberships or other sports or activities related to fitness and healthy living. The credit limit is $1,000. Neither proposal had been acted on as of this writing.

Representative Jerry Ellis introduced a bill in Oklahoma that would have imposed just under a 2-cent excise tax on a can of pop. He said the bill, which did not come out of committee, was designed to provide funding for important budget priorities such as bridge repair, Medicaid and education. It would have brought in some matching funds, as well.

"It was less than 2 cents per can," Ellis says. "That's not going to stop anyone from buying a soft drink. And it's a better avenue than going to a property tax or a higher fuel tax, which is a killer tax in my opinion."

The Maryland Senate unsuccessfully tried to reinstate a snack food tax in the budget reconciliation bill. It would have removed the sales tax exemption for potato chips, corn chips and pretzels, among other snacks. The proposal, which was a substitute for another health revenue raiser, passed the Senate, but was not included in the final budget bill approved by the General Assembly.

Meanwhile, some interesting policy questions remain about special food taxes. How should nutritional value be measured and then put into policy? Should targeted items include foods that are high in calories or sugar or "bad" carbohydrates? How about saturated fat? Or should a common sense test regarding "junk foods" be sufficient? …

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