The Common Good

California: Up in Smoke

Date: October 11, 2006

A fight is brewing in California over a proposed $2.60-per-pack tax hike on cigarettes on the November ballot. In addition to various health organizations and non-profits that have come out in support of Proposition 86, a number of religious leaders have added their voices to those politicking for the highest single cigarette tax increase in history.

One of those supporting the tax is the progressive evangelical celebrity Jim Wallis, author of the best-selling book, God’s Politics. In a speech supporting the passage of Prop. 86, Wallis called the tax “a moral and religious imperative,” and said that voting for the measure is “the right thing, the moral thing, to do.”

On one issue at least religious leaders ought to be able to agree: We have no moral “right” to burn our lungs out with cigarettes. In fact, we have a responsibility to do the opposite, to take good care of our bodies.

But the real issue in the case of so-called sin taxes, which are designed to curb behavior the government deems undesirable, has little to do with our rights and responsibilities so much as it has to do with the agency of enforcement. Who or what will be charged with the moral instruction and enforcement needed to keep sinful behavior to a minimum, or at least restrict its social consequences?

It is true, of course, that governments always act on moral premises of some sort. Punishing crimes against person and property are acts of moral sanction. But on the taxation of cigarettes, we have seen that numerous faith leaders and religious groups are more than willing to cede their responsibility for moral leadership to the government.

In answering the dilemma whether all immoral activity should be made illegal, the Christian philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas wrote that “the purpose of human law is to lead men to virtue, not suddenly, but gradually.” This is why the law “does not lay upon the multitude of imperfect men the burdens of those who are already virtuous that they should abstain from all evil. Otherwise these imperfect ones, being unable to bear such precepts, would break out into yet greater evils.” This principle of prudence that Aquinas advocates calls for us to look at the likely consequences of laws to see, despite their laudable intentions, whether they will cause more harm than good.

If we apply this principle to the proposed California cigarette tax, we get a somewhat more complex and troublesome picture than many lobbyists want to portray. There’s not much that is gradual about a record 300 per cent tax hike on a pack of cigarettes. And while the purposes of sin taxes are generally praiseworthy, we see that their unintended consequences can often be devastating.

When government imposes high costs on a good that consumers desire, people will attempt to find ways to feed their personal desires at low cost. This tendency makes the sin tax backfire, often increasing the sin itself. This is due to the “more-bang-for-the-buck” principle. If cigarettes are taxed at a high rate, for instance, some consumers are likely turn to cigarettes that have a higher nicotine content, including those that are unfiltered.

Another huge danger is the likelihood of increased smuggling by individuals, gangs, and organized crime. If Prop. 86 were to pass, Nevada’s 80 cent per pack tax on cigarettes would begin to look like a real bargain (Cigarette taxes in Arizona and Oregon are $1.18 per pack).

Many law enforcement groups have come out against California’s Prop. 86 because they realize that the passage of the measure would greatly increase the profit margins and incentives for criminal activity. Richard E. Wagner, an economist at George Mason University, has shown that high cigarette taxes encourage people to cross state or national borders to smuggle back cheap cigarettes, or to illegally purchase tobacco products via the Internet.

Under the logic of the sin tax, the government ends up developing a comprehensive vision of what does or does not constitute legitimate behavior. This plan may or may not fit with the citizens’ own views of what constitutes sin. But because the state has that power, it may exercise it with impunity, overriding contrary moral objections. Those who demand that the state punish petty sins are taking a dangerous tack by assuming that state power will always be used to promote their own particular view of right and wrong. It does not always do that.