There was a time when we used to call them "sin taxes." In that earlier and moralistic age, the government was encouraged to punish smokers and drinkers for their sins by slapping them with a stiff excise tax.
This national pay-as-you-go-to-hell program lasted well into the mid-20th century, with time out for Prohibition. Then, gradually, sin began to go out of fashion. Today, smoking is no longer the hallmark of a loose woman except in retrospective Virginia Slims ads. Not even the Salvation Army describes alcoholics as sinners anymore.
But there is a movement in the land to raise the excise taxes from the half-dead. One coalition of groups is lobbying to tax cigarettes at a higher rate, and now another wants to up the federal ante on alcohol.
This time they aren't crusading to tax people for the sake of their souls. They are campaigning to save their bodies. Last week, the National Alcohol Tax Coalition -- one part Women's Christian Temperance Union, 10 parts medical establishment -- introduced its plan. It is not, they insist, the same "old-fashioned 'sin taxes.' instead labeled "health taxes."
The coalition makes a good case for an alcohol tax increase on purely economic grounds. Doubling the tax on hard alcohol would restore it to 1974 levels, when you adjust the value of the dollar. Their other proposal would tax the alcoholic content of beer and wine so that it would be on a par with hard liquor. They estimate that the whole thing would bring in $12 billion a year to cut the deficit.
But the motive is more subtle than the price tag. The modern demon in rum is its health effects. The alcohol taxers hope, as do the cigarette taxers, that raising the costs will lower the consumption, especially by the young.
As Michael Jacobson, head of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says up front: "We're interested in reducing drinking, not stopping drinking. We're not teetotalers, but we want to promote the public health while raising tax revenues."
Well, I support this argument and these new taxes. But I can't help noticing the shifting grounds on which the new arguments rest. Today we are less likely to apply a moral measure to human behavior than a health meas from damnation-prevention programs to sickness prevention.
It is particularly true of smoking and drinking, but not exclusively. When was the last time that anyone accused an overweight friend of the sin of gluttony? We may talk about will power, the bakery may name its best-selling dessert "Chocolate Sin," but it's the rare person who says that being fat is being bad. We say, albeit piously, that it's bad for you.
Nor is sloth any longer a sin against God. It has become a crime against your heart vessels. We no longer win or lose points for the life in the hereafter but for extending the here and now. The new chosen people are those who rate high on the cardiovascular fit-parade charts.
Even premarital sex has undergone a slight shift. Once we believed that God would punish those who committed the act. Now many Americans are less anxious about the immorality than about catching a sexually transmitted disease.
I suppose that some of this is the fallout of psychology. As good modern pyschobabblers, we talk less about right and wrong and more about healthy and sick behavior. If some acts are condemned on public- health grounds, others are justified as "good for you." Screaming, for example, has been described as a "healthy outlet" for anger. Marrying a younger (presumably, second) wife was identified by one researcher as an aid to a longer (presumably, male) life.
I have strayed a bit from smoking and drinking. But not onto altogether foreign turf. By all means, we should raise the taxes on smoking. Raise them on drinking. If the young get hit in the purse or pocketbook, they may not get hit later in the liver or lung. Let the heaviest users make their contribution to the national debt on the way to the doctor.
But don't try to change the name of the tax. Smoking may be described as an addiction and alcoholism as a disease. But these are still "sin taxes." It's just that we've changed the nature of sin. The unforgivable misbehavior of contemporary life is whatever makes us sick. In modern America, illness is hell.