Sin Taxes, Their Pros and Cons, and Whether They Work

Why the Government Taxes Sin

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A sin tax is an excise tax on socially harmful goods. An excise tax is a flat tax imposed on each item sold. The most commonly taxed goods are alcohol, cigarettes, gambling, and pornography. Excise taxes are collected from the producer or wholesaler. They drive up the retail price for consumers.

Federal Sin Taxes

There is a federal excise tax on cigarettesalcohol, and gambling winnings. There are also federal excise taxes on gasoline, airline tickets, and some health-related goods.

In 2015, federal excise taxes generated $98.3 billion or 3 percent of federal tax revenues. Of that, $14.5 billion were cigarette taxes. The tax adds $1 to each pack of cigarettes.

Alcohol taxes contributed $9.6 billion in federal revenue. Liquor is $13.50 per proof
gallon. Each proof gallon is a liquid gallon that is 50 percent alcohol. Wine is $3.40
per gallon. Beer is $18 per barrel, although micro-breweries pay $7 per

State Sin Taxes

States can also charge sin taxes. In 2014, states collected $32.5 billion in sin
taxes. They collected $16.9 billion in cigarette taxes. They received $6.1
billion for liquor, wine, and beer sales. They received $9.5 billion in taxes
on gambling, not including state lottery revenues.

On average, sin taxes contributed just 3.8 percent of total state revenue. Some states rely on sin taxes much more than that.

Rhode Island depends on sin taxes for 15.9 percent of its revenue. That's because it has two gambling casinos. It beat the gambling capital of the world, Las Vegas. Nevada collects $900 million in taxes from casinos, but sin taxes only contribute 14.8 percent of revenue. This state income allows Nevada to waive
income taxes on its residents.

The national average sin tax for cigarettes is $1.58 per pack. But that ranges from $0.60 a pack to $3 a pack. The lowest rates are in the tobacco-growing states of Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Virginia. They also have the highest smoking rates. Kentucky is No. 1, with 25.9 percent of the population who smoke. West Virginia is second, at 25.7 percent. Georgia has 17.7 percent, North Carolina has 19.0 percent, and Virginia has 16.5 percent.

The national average tax for liquor is $4.56 per gallon. It's $0.85 for every
gallon of wine and $0.29 for each gallon of beer.

The two states with the highest cost of living also have the highest sin tax rate.

Alaska charges $12.80 for every gallon of liquor and $2 for each pack of cigarettes. Hawaii is second, charging $5.98 for each gallon of liquor and $3.20 for each pack of cigarettes.

Wyoming and Missouri have the lowest sin tax rates. Wyoming has no liquor tax and only charges $0.60 for each pack of cigarettes. Missouri imposes $2 on each gallon of liquor and $0.17 on each pack of smokes.

Although there might be good reasons to impose sin taxes on society, some of these taxes have their downsides as well. Here are the pros and cons of imposing sin taxes.


  • They do discourage unhealthy behavior.

  • The taxes pay for some of society's costs.

  • They are popular with voters.


  • The taxes aren't high enough to eliminate the behavior.

  • They don't completely pay for the costs to society.

  • They are subjective, as other harmful substances are not taxed.


There are three arguments in favor of sin taxes. They discourage unhealthy behavior, they pay for society's costs, and they’re popular with voters.

Sin taxes discourage people from unhealthy behavior. In 2009, the federal government raised cigarette taxes by $0.62 a pack. Teenage smoking rates fell by 10 percent, and overall cigarette sales dropped 8.3 percent. Between 2005 and 2015, the percentage of people who smoked fell from 21 percent to 15 percent.

For example, a 10 percent tax on cigarettes reduces demand by 4 percent. This reduction in demand is even more pronounced among young people. A 10 percent tax reduces smoking among those aged 12 to 17 by 11.9 percent.

Why do states want to reduce smoking? Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death.

Between 80 percent and 90 percent of lung cancer deaths are due to smoking,
according to the National Cancer Institute. Kentucky, the state
with the highest tobacco use, has one of the highest rates of lung cancer.

Sin taxes help states pay the cost of treating the public health consequences of smoking, drinking, and gambling. But states don’t spend as much of this tax revenue on health care as they could. It covers some of society's cost of educating people about lung cancer.

Sin taxes are more politically viable than raising income or sales taxes. According to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, national and state opinion polls have "consistently shown broad voter support" for tobacco tax increases. In 2017, 57 percent of Americans supported sin taxes on soda if the money was used for children's health programs.


Sin taxes aren't high enough to work. If states really wanted to eliminate the behavior, they would raise the tax until it was high enough to discourage most people from picking up the habit, but not high enough to encourage a black market.

Sin taxes aren't high enough to offset the behavior's cost to society. If they were, they'd be a Pigouvian tax. An example of this type of tax is the carbon tax. Britain imposed a carbon tax, prohibitive enough to force utility companies to switch from fossil fuels to natural gas. As a result, greenhouse gas emissions in the United Kingdom drastically fell to late 19th century levels. If the carbon tax were just a sin tax, its cost wouldn’t be high enough to compel companies to look for cleaner alternative fuel sources. 

Sin taxes are subjective. Lawmakers decide that some health issues, such as cigarette and alcohol addiction, should be taxed and others shouldn't. Other so-called sins, such as opium and heroin addiction, aren't taxed but are simply declared illegal. Other addictions, such as sugar, aren't taxed even though they cause health problems such as diabetes.


In 1776, Adam Smith wrote that taxes on cigarettes, rum, and sugar are appropriate. These commodities are not essential for life but are widely consumed. The federal government began taxing tobacco during the Civil War. In the 1920s, cigarette taxes became widespread as advertising doubled the number of smokers. In 1951, the federal tax was $0.08 per pack. In 1983, it doubled to $0.16 a pack, then $0.39 a pack in 2002.

The Bottom Line

A sin tax discourages activities that create socially harmful consequences. It raises the cost of that activity, hoping that fewer people will partake in it. These taxes don't really work but are popular because they feel morally justified. The revenue does help states pay some of the costs of the additional harm to the public good, however, some sin taxes are regressive because the poor pay a higher percentage of their income.

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