Sin tax is not a biblical term. In common usage, sin tax is a rather facetious name for a special tax levied against things considered “sinful” or harmful to society in some way. Taxes on tobacco products, beer, liquor, gambling, and, most recently, legalized pot are considered “sin taxes.”
A sin tax can be an effort on the part of a governmental body to curb certain behaviors that are deemed to be dangerous or detrimental to the individual or society by making the cost of the products or services extraordinarily high. For instance, on average, almost half the cost of a pack of cigarettes is due to taxes. By taxing certain products and activities heavily, it is hoped that usage and participation will be deterred. The “sin tax” is an alternative to outright banning of certain activities and products or punishing/fining people for indulging in them.
A more cynical view is that a sin tax is simply a way for the government to boost its revenue. People are going to indulge in these harmful behaviors, especially when they are addicted to a substance, and the government has chosen to profit from it. In this view, government leaders are not really trying to curb behavior, for then they would lose tax money. They have come to rely on the taxes generated, so they are knowingly taking advantage of people who may be caught in a web of addiction.
Alcohol and tobacco products are historically the most common things targeted by a “sin tax.” Other products and activities that may have “sin taxes” levied against them are gambling, pornography, and marijuana. Some jurisdictions are also passing laws to levy “sin taxes” on candy, soft drinks, and fast food. Certain vehicles that consume large amounts of gasoline are also becoming targets of extra taxes, perhaps due to a belief that fossil fuel consumption is a moral issue.
Many of the things that are the targets of sin taxes are no doubt unhealthy, and a reduction in their use would be a good thing. However, critics argue that, in reality, sin taxes do not reduce consumption, but instead place an undue burden on the poor. They argue that people will use these products (especially cigarettes and alcoholic drinks) regardless of the cost, and that the rich can easily afford them while the poor cannot.
Sin taxes illustrate the difficulty of trying to change and regulate behavior externally. There is no doubt that some form of external control is necessary to keep sinful actions in check. However, a truly free society can only operate when there is common agreement on what constitutes moral behavior and an equally common determination to act morally. At one time, there was a consensus in the United States about basic standards of right and wrong. Even when people violated those standards, they still could agree in principle that what they did was wrong. This consensus was based on what has been called “the Judeo-Christian ethic,” which simply means an ethic based on the teachings of the Old and New Testaments. The Judeo-Christian ethic was partially external but also to some degree internal, as most citizens were indoctrinated in it and “social pressure” was largely pushing people in the right direction. Today, as that Judeo-Christian consensus has been eroded, there is no agreement on even the most basic questions of right and wrong or even truth and falsehood.
Perhaps the current situation reveals the weakness inherent in a free society not comprised of people who have been born again by the Spirit of God. Even a return to the Judeo-Christian consensus of the past would not solve the basic sin problem, which is really a heart problem. While such a society would no doubt be a better place to live, individuals would still be just as sinful on the inside and just as guilty before God. Certainly, Israel in the Old Testament had some heavy external regulations, yet sin was still rampant. That is why God told Jeremiah about a New Covenant that He would enact:
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
“when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
and with the people of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant
I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant,
though I was a husband to them,”
declares the Lord.
“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
after that time,” declares the Lord.
“I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
No longer will they teach their neighbor,
or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,”
declares the Lord.
“For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.”
Laws and taxes are partially effective external restraints on sin. But God’s plan to restrain sin is to change people internally so that they will want to live in a way that moral and just. Jesus came “to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26). Under the New Covenant, sin is taken away. People can be forgiven of their sins and have their hearts changed so that they want to please God as they live in the power of the Holy Spirit.