Wages of Sin

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The popular term is "sin tax," and Case Western Reserve University Law Professor Max Mehlman says it's usually applied to such activities as smoking, gambling and drinking.

Max Mehlman: Sin tax is a way of raising revenue for the government, without doing it in a way that's going to be highly unpopular, such as by raising income taxes or property taxes, or sales taxes on the necessities of life. Instead, the idea is to target certain sorts of... undesirable behaviors.

And if you're looking for so-called "undesirable behaviors," you can certainly hit the trifecta at Thistledown.

James Cunningham watches a group of horse racing fans cheering the action on a TV above the bar at the North Randall track. Stabbing a Salem into an ashtray, he makes no bones about being a smoker, but he doesn't consider himself a "sinner." And he says a boost in the cigarette tax would be unfair.

James Cunningham: I think cigarette taxes are high enough now, 'cause I pay enough for a pack of cigarettes. I mean, I want them to get their arts and culture together, but cigarette taxes are too high. And then, they want to tell you where you can or can't smoke.

State Senator Eric Fingerhut has some sympathy for Cunningham's dilemma, and he doesn't want to brand any smoker as a "sinner."

Eric Fingerhut: The "sin tax" is a misnomer. The truth is, it's an excise tax on certain consumable products or services.

Smokes and booze have proven to be two very profitable sources of income in Ohio. The Gateway sports complex, including Jacobs Field and the "Q," were partially built through a tax on cigarettes, as was Browns Stadium. Fingerhut says that a good deal of economic development money across the state comes from bonds backed by hard liquor sales. He adds that such taxes also provide a social benefit.

Eric Fingerhut: When you raise taxes on cigarettes, the consumption will go down. Who's most affected by a small increase in price? Well, it tends to be people at the lower income are most affected by it, and so they may smoke less, which is a good public health benefit. Smokers who are wealthier, the extra cost doesn't tend to affect them.

But, Nicholas King of the Case Medical School finds a moral dilemma in that. A bio-ethicist, King says that while there is research that says higher taxes tend to discourage cigarette sales, that's not what's going on here.

Nicholas King: The clear signal of this initiative is not to discourage smoking, but to make the smokers pay for arts and culture. Why don't we say, this is something that Cuyahoga County thinks is important and we will have a tax on everyone who might benefit from better arts and culture?

King finds what he calls a similar "ethical conundrum" in the "Learn and Earn" initiative. Even though socially unacceptable behaviors are a good source of revenue, he thinks they are too easy a target.

Nicholas King: Throughout history, we have tended to stigmatize certain behaviors and certain populations. Once certain behaviors become stigmatized - drinking, smoking, gambling, sexual behaviors - it becomes much easier to say we can place an undue burden on this stigmatized population.

State Senator Fingerhut supports the "Learn and Earn" proposal, though he acknowledges that giving the green light to slot machines in Ohio might tend to encourage people with an addiction to gambling. He notes that one percent of the profits from the slots would be steered towards treatment programs.

Eric Fingerhut: Our experience is that most of the people who are problem gamblers, already gamble. They're gambling on-line, they're gambling in other locations just outside the state, so it's very hard to see that there's a dramatic increase in problem gambling.

Bob Johnson hasn't been making out too well at the track today. But, there's another race in about two minutes. The day's winding down and he's thinking of coming back tomorrow. He says putting in slot machines would be a great addition to the track, but he's not so enthused about the proposal to boost the cigarette tax. Sporting a pack rolled-up in his shirt sleeve, he says he may have to give up his nicotine habit.

Bob Johnson: Oh yeah, that would cause me to quit. Because, I been smoking all my life, and that's enough. I mean, spending that much money? Cripes, they're almost six dollars.

So, that means the theory about higher taxes discouraging smoking would seem to have some validity, at least in Johnson's case. But, for legal scholar Max Mehlman the larger question is, how typical is Bob Johnson?

Max Mehlman: If the motive is to discourage so-called "sinful" behaviors - gambling or smoking or drinking a lot of alcohol, the question is: Can people really control those behaviors? Or are those behaviors beyond their control?

David C. Barnett, 90.3.

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