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Megan McArdle

Why States Like Sin Taxes

Here's something we can settle: why states rely so much on regressive taxes such as sales taxes, sin taxes and property taxes rather than a progressive income tax.
The taxman welcomes you to Marlboro Country.

The taxman welcomes you to Marlboro Country.

Photographer: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Kansas Governor Sam Brownback has put his state in a bit of a pickle. The governor pushed through massive cuts to the state's income taxes, which, in one of the least surprising developments in recent U.S. history, left the state hundreds of millions of dollars in the hole. Even the conservative citizenry of Kansas was not pleased, and Brownback barely squeaked to a re-election victory. Now he's finally having to do something to close the budget gap, and the answer is: sin taxes. Levies on alcohol and cigarettes will rise substantially.

Some corners of the progressive movement will rejoice at this. Alcohol and cigarette taxes reduce consumption of substances that prove very unhealthy for a lot of their consumers. Whatever your position on the paternalism of cigarette taxes, I think it's fair to say that they have contributed to the decline in smoking, and they are probably most effective at deterring new smokers, who tend to be kids without all that much disposable income. Alcohol taxes, meanwhile, make it very expensive to get drunk, as opposed to having a couple of drinks.