EDITORIAL: ‘Sin taxes’ help balance budget

By Observer editorial August 26, 2013 11:50 am

There is much debate, locally and nationally, over what is a sin. Some people’s lists are way longer than other people’s. For instance, is anything done in excess a sin — food, exercise, work even?

Most people would agree, though, that gambling, smoking and drinking are sins, at least within the definition of sin taxes. That Oregon ranks 10th among the 50 states in sin taxes as a portion of total revenue, according to the website 24/7 Wall St., is good news indeed, and the state should make efforts to move higher on the list. By the way, not surprisingly, Nevada, the casino capital of the western world, the original gambling Mecca, the driest state in the United States — except for alcohol use — ranks first.

Let’s be clear. We are skeptical of new taxes and back-door fees. Gambling, smoking and drinking in moderation probably won’t kill a person. In excess, however, smoking and alcohol be fatal and gambling in excess can have devastating consequences.

Oregon has made concerted efforts to raise smoking taxes, as any smoker shelling out $5 for a pack of cigarettes will attest. The beverage lobby, meanwhile, has kept alcohol taxes relatively low, at least compared with neighboring states like Washington.

Admittedly, a rise in sin taxes would hit the poorest people hardest, the ones who can least afford alcohol, smoking and gambling. But a rise in sin taxes would encourage moderation as it prices sin out of the budgetary range of some shoppers.

Oregon, by the way, gains the most sin revenue from the lottery. Of the top 10 states, all get the most sin revenue from either lottery or casinos except New Hampshire, whose license plates carry the motto “Live free or die,” whose most profitable sin is tobacco.  A person doesn’t live free as a smoker in New Hampshire.

New taxes and fees are never happy moments for those on the paying end. But neither is treatment for compulsive gambling, or the health care costs associated with excessive alcohol or tobacco use.

Oregon should look at ways to discourage sin. But since it will always be part of the landscape, the state should also look for ways to profit from sin and balance the state budget.