by Adam J. Hoffer, William F. Shughart II, Michael D. Thomas
February 12, 2013
Working Paper Series
Revenue shortfalls have undermined states’ ability to balance their budgets. Particularly attractive places for new revenue creation are taxes levied selectively on specific goods whose consumption public policy makers want to discourage, arguing that they impair the consumer’s health, generate negative externalities, or both. These selective taxes collectively are known as “sin taxes” because of their historical association with vice. This paper explores three criticisms of sin taxes. First, the taxation of selected goods as a source of general budget revenue contradicts the standard Pigouvian social welfare argument. Second, the economic burden of sin taxes falls disproportionately on low-income households. Third, the expanding number of goods being taxed in this way results in unproductive preventive and defensive lobbying by the affected industries.