Exploiting Human Weakness: A Look at Vice Taxation

By Wayne Jackson
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As a matter of public policy, it is not uncommon for politicians to pass laws levying taxes on products that for all intents and purposes deliberately exploit human weaknesses.

Such legislation has even become popular on the voter level. In 1998, voters in California passed an initiative known as Proposition 10. This proposition places a tax on cigarettes (an extra fifty cents per pack), designed to generate an estimated $700 million annually in revenue.

Purportedly, the income is to be used for the support of various social services. In addition to the projected monies, an additional advantage is supposed to be the prohibitive effect it will have on youngsters buying cigarettes.

While some studies seem to indicate higher taxation does have a marginal effect in reducing use of tobacco products, a larger set of data indicates that people generally switch to other products (i.e. electronic cigarettes, marijuana, etc.) rather than abandoning vice altogether.

Should Christians Support Vice Taxation?

Christians sometimes express approval of such laws, arguing: “If people are going to smoke, society might as well get some benefit from it.” It’s hard not to feel this way when you are opposed to smoking. However, if one wishes to strive for integrity and consistency, this is not the noblest approach to the controversy.

As a spiritual matter, the informed person must conclude that the human consumption of tobacco is not consistent with New Testament teaching. This poison (and that is exactly what tobacco embodies) provides nothing good for the human body, and inflicts much that is bad. It is a killer. It is suicide on the installment plan. It is not even necessary to introduce evidence to prove this statement. Virtually no one, except propagandists for the tobacco industry, even disputes it.

The consumption of tobacco violates every biblical passage which views the body as the “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19), as an instrument of righteousness (Romans 6:12-13), and as a living sacrifice unto God (Romans 12:1). No devout Christian can bow his head and offer thanks to his Creator before lighting a cigarette.

I am quite sincere when I tell you that I have genuine compassion for many who use tobacco. I truly believe that most smokers (along with dippers and chewers) would like to be free from this habit. No one really wants to “burn up” or “spit out” all that money, which could be used for loftier purposes. (If one smokes a pack a day, he will spend more than $800 in a year!) No one really relishes the idea of having breath that smells like a billy goat. No one enjoys a rattling cough and shortness of breath. No one looks forward to dying with the horrible ravages of cancer or emphysema. The fact is, people get started on this drug (usually when young; usually under peer pressure) and they become addicted. They want to stop, but are convinced they can’t. Eventually many find the courage to abandon the addiction. We applaud them, and devoutly pray for their continued success.

But back to the taxation issue. Let’s look at this matter more carefully.

The purpose of civil government is to protect the citizens of society from those who would inflict harm upon them. We have laws against murder because it is wrong for one human to arbitrarily take the life of another. We have laws against the use of opium, heroin and cocaine because we know that these drugs exact a devastating toll upon society. When a government exploits human weakness to enhance its economy, it has vitiated its providential purpose.

But the problem is this: at various points in our history, we started down the slippery slope of indulgence. Such now has “snowballed” to the point of our current crisis. Across the many years of American history, thousands adopted the use of alcohol and tobacco. Now we feel we’ve gone too far to turn back, and, realistically speaking, we probably have. Degenerating societies almost never turn themselves around.

I have not heard of a solitary politician—those who rage in protest about the devastation that smoking is inflicting upon America’s youth— argue that tobacco should be banned (as other drugs are). Politicians are too weak to take such a position. This view, it is alleged, is much too idealistic and impractical.

Thousands of lives are destroyed annually because of alcohol, but no one wants to outlaw the manufacture and sale of booze. Gambling was once against the law; then it was allowed in certain areas (e.g., Nevada). Finally came the legalized lottery, and now the gambling mania is rolling over the nation like a flood. And, as always, it is justified on the basis that it brings in income for society’s needs. We are too far gone to slam on the brakes!

One can only wonder how long it will be before we:

  • legalize marijuana in all 50 states (as has already happened in Colorado and Washington), heroin, and cocaine—for taxation purposes;
  • legalize prostitution nationwide—and justify it on the grounds of tax revenue (as in Nevada already); and
  • legalize all forms of pornography (including child-porn)—to collect taxes.

Are we actually in favor of legalizing immoral and destructive practices as a means of supporting social programs?

The very notion is absurd. No society can be enhanced and advanced by preying upon the weakness of its citizenry, and then rationalizing the action on the basis of income for humanitarian purposes! We have turned things upside down (Isaiah 29:16). Ultimately, there is a payday to come.

The fact is, as a practical matter, substance abuse costs our nation far more than is received in tax revenues. Dr. Constance Horgan of the Institute for Health Policy prepared a report which revealed that in 1990 the total economic cost of alcohol, tobacco, and illicit drug abuse in the United States was $238 billion. That is the equivalent of almost $1,000 for every man, woman, and child in America—far in excess of the income these vices generate.

Everyone wants reform of these evils, but few want to support the radical surgery necessary to substantially eliminate them. When laws are passed prohibiting these substances, society goes wild and wantonly breaks the law (as in the Prohibition era of 1920-33). It is argued that the principle of prohibition just doesn’t work.

There is, however, a considerable body of evidence which demonstrates that the Prohibition of the 1920s was quite beneficial to American society in numerous ways. Work productivity increased enormously. Alcohol-related illnesses dropped sharply. And even though gangster activity accelerated, many forms of alcohol-connected crime declined significantly. Prohibition would work if it were enforced consistently.

Libertarians preach about the rights of the individual. But as someone wisely observed: “Your ‘right’ ends where my nose begins!” No one has the “right,” for example, in exercising his “freedom of speech,” to shout, “Fire!” in a crowded theater. When individual “rights” create the sort of havoc that is detrimental to society as a whole, they become “wrongs,” and there must be some surrender of personal privileges.

Christians need to oppose wrong-doing on the basis of principle, rather than capitulating to compromising crumbs thrown to us from the tables of politicians.

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.