Sin taxes are in.
Federal tax increases, included in the 1991 budget passed last weekend by Congress, are expected to raise about $6 billion from increased tobacco taxes and $9 billion from alcohol sales over the next five years. Next Tuesday, voters in California will decide whether to levy a nickel-a-drink tax on beer, wine and liquor.
If California's bellwether ballot initiative passes, that state hopes to raise $770 million annually that will be used for a variety of health programs, including drug and alcohol education.
The same day, Montana voters will decide whether to raise the state's cigarette tax to a record 43 cents per pack and use part of the money to fund anti-smoking programs.
The notion behind user fees or so-called "sin taxes on alcohol and tobacco is that they help discourage use and reduce consumption, thereby diminishing health-related problems and costs.
Efforts to boost such fees have become increasingly popular in recent years, particularly as revenue-pinched governments have sought new ways to raise money.
"The people who use alcohol and tobacco ought to be the ones who are taxed," says former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, a supporter of sin taxes. The new federal tax increases, however, are smaller than health proponents had hoped, partly because of vigorous lobbying campaigns waged by the tobacco and liquor industries. Their officials say that such taxes are puritanical and regressive, hitting low-income people the hardest.
"I'm offended by any suggestion that we have to beat groups of people over the head with an economic club to keep them from exercising their freedom of choice in the marketplace," said Walker Merryman, a vice president of the Tobacco Institute, a Washington-based organization that represents cigarette manufacturers.
Opponents of higher alcohol taxes say they unfairly penalize moderate users.
"I'm going to defend to the death my glass of Chardonnay," Wine Institute president John De Luca has said of the California proposal to raise the alcohol tax. "This is going to be a holy war for us."
Despite industry opposition, several recent polls have shown that a majority of Americans favor increased sin taxes.
And numerous studies as well as experiences in states that have hiked taxes indicate that higher levies tax on tobacco and alcohol can influence behavior, particularly among young adults.
In 1989, after California increased the cigarette tax from 10 to 35 cents, cigarette sales dropped by about 14 percent, according to the Coalition on Smoking or Health, a nonprofit anti-smoking group.
A recent report by the Department of Health and Human Services notes that deaths from cirrhosis of the liver, caused by chronic alcoholism, are lower in 30 states that have raised distilled spirits taxes.
The human and economic cost of injury and deaths related to alcohol and tobacco is enormous. HHS officials say that tobacco is linked to about 390,000 deaths annually and costs the U.S. more than $50 billion a year. Each year there are more than 100,000
alcohol-related deaths, many of them traffic accidents, which cost an estimated $100 billion annually.
Sin taxes are not a new phenomenon. Stiffer tobacco taxes levied in 1864 helped finance the Civil War. More recently, after a 30-year freeze, the federal excise tax rose in 1983 from 8 cents a pack to 16 cents. Under the new budget plan, it would rise by another 8 cents, half in 1991 and half in 1993. Health groups had hoped to double the tax.
Instead, the 1991 increase is expected to reduce the number of smokers in this country by about 300,000 adults and 82,000 teenagers, according to Ronald Davis, director of the U.S. Office on Smoking and Health.
State cigarette taxes range from 2 cents a pack in North Carolina to 41 cents in Texas; the average is 22 cents. Ten states earmark portions of the tax for health-related programs, according to Tobacco-Free America, an anti-smoking legislative clearinghouse based in the District of Columbia.
So far this year, eight states have passed tobacco tax increases and five others are considering them, according to the Tobacco Institute. At the local level, about 400 jurisdictions impose cigarette taxes. One of the most unusual, narrowly passed last May in Ohio's Cuyahoga County, was a sin tax on cigarettes and alcohol that will help finance a new sports complex.
The burden of sin taxes in the U.S. is considerably smaller than in Europe. In the U.S., taxes account for about 25 percent of the retail price of cigarettes compared with about 75 percent in parts of Europe.
When it comes to alcohol, the tax picture is varied. The federal tax on beer and wine has remained unchanged since 1951, while the tax on liquor was increased in 1985.
Under the new federal budget plan, the tax on beer would double to 32 cents per six-pack and the wine tax would jump seven-fold, from about 3 cents to 21 cents a bottle. Taxes on liquor would rise more modestly, from $12.50 per 100-proof gallon to $13.50.
As with tobacco, a coalition of health and consumer groups had supported a higher federal alcohol tax -- more than seven times higher the level in the budget. The new federal increases "will have some health impact, perhaps a 2 to 3 percent drop in overall consumption," said Patricia Taylor, director of the Alcohol Policies Project for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based consumer group.
According to an unpublished analysis by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a private, nonprofit group, the new federal tax on beer would reduce consumption and traffic deaths, saving an estimated 1,700 lives.
Nationally there have been 75 liquor tax proposals in 33 states this year, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S., Inc. So far this year, eight states have passed increases in alcohol taxes; in the 1980s, more than 100 state increases passed.
The biggest battle is taking place in California, where voters passed a 1988 cigarette tax increase that helped finance a media antismoking campaign that included advertisements that mocked tobacco company marketing methods.
Buoyed by the success of the cigarette tax, a coalition of health and social service groups are seeking to do the same with alcohol. Supporters are optimistic even though the initial large margin of support in the polls has been shrinking.
To fight back, the liquor industry has waged a $20 million campaign and is pushing an alternative lower alcohol tax proposal that would fund general state programs.
In Montana, the battle in "Marlboro Country" to raise the existing cigarette excise tax by 140 percent -- from 18 cents to 43 cents per pack -- is modeled after the 1988 California initiative. It pits the Coalition for a Healthy Montana -- an anti-smoking group that has raised about $33,000 from doctors and health organizations -- against an anti-tax opposition effort financed by some of the nation's leading tobacco manufacturers.
"The polls show we're ahead," said physician Robert M. Shepard of the coalition. "But the tobacco lobby has spent over a million dollars, twice what has been spent on any other ballot issue in the history of Montana and more than $2 for every registered voter."
Tobacco lobbyists have said they oppose the measure because it is an attempt to "establish social mores."