The Wages of Sin Used to Be Death Nowadays, It's Taxes

ELLEN GOODMAN

March 09, 1993|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston. --I don't know who first put together those two little words, ''sin'' and ''taxes,'' but it was an inspired moment in the annals of public relations. With one stroke, the tax collector was set squarely in the camp of the righteous and the tax protesters were allied with the devil.

Of course, ''sin taxes'' always conveyed a slightly mixed ethical message. With one hand the government wagged its public finger of disapproval and promised to price people onto the straight and narrow. With the other hand, it scooped up a piece of the action.

But those were the days when drinking and smoking were considered evil. When a sin was something that put your soul in jeopardy. When we all expected to pay big time for any offenses -- after death.

Now of course, we pay the most devout attention to our medical behavior. Our chief vices are the ones that put our bodies in jeopardy. We may still expect to pay big time for our offenses -- but with a premature death.

So there is something symbolic in the current proposals to help pay for health-care reform by taxing the habits of the unreformed. We are being offered a new generation of sin taxes for a new definition of sin.

I have no problem with this as a revenue plan. The dollar-a-pack tax on tobacco suggested last week by Sen. Bill Bradley and Rep. Michael Andrews would raise up to $10 billion a year. Adding a little something to the bar bill might help us get in the black. But I am queasy about the ties that bind evil and illness, virtue and health.

Sometimes it seems that the harshest moral judgments of our era are reserved for medical misdemeanors. People who wouldn't dream of judging others by their sexual preference or bank balance, casually calculate personal worth according to the health commandments. But when you consider the average American medical balance sheet, there's a lot of good and bad in any profile.

It's not just a matter of bald spots which, as a friend gasps, have just become the medical mark of Cain. Nor is it a question of apple-shaped bodies which may or may not be a sign of impending breast cancer in women and an omen of heart disease in men. These are in our genes, not our choices.

But what of Americans who eat off the high end of the food chain and the fast end of the restaurant chain more often than they should? What of Americans who buckle up and helmet down less than they should? We may be risking trouble, but are we sinners? An act may be foolish or dangerous, but is it evil?

One misbegotten study after another suggests that the worst thing Americans can do to themselves, aside from lighting up another cigarette, is to swallow another glob of fat. We are expected to pale at the sight of a cheeseburger the way that our great-grandparents did at an exposed ankle.

We now have a bible of fat grams with a permanent place on the best-seller list. The tabernacles inside tell us a tablespoon of butter has 11.5 grams of fat and a Big Mac has 35. If we are going to reward and punish people for breaking medical taboos, then surely we should charge a penny-a-gram for brie. If we can tax energy by the Btu, we can tax fat by the gram.

On the other hand, if it is true that moderate portions of red wine can reduce the odds of a heart attack, then should we declare it a virtue? Perhaps we should offer a tax break for two glasses a day. Under the medical deduction of course.

The odd thing is that Americans remain selective in our medical morality tales. All sorts of risky behaviors escape the mantle of right and wrong.

Our health-care dollars go without comment to mend the broken bones of the horseback rider, even the bungee jumper. We don't regard the skier as a sinner. Indeed, we may perversely regard his indolent brother as the greater danger.

But the notion that we should justify taxes as a fine on people who mistreat their bodies is enough to make an IRS man start counting his blessings. And our character flaws.

I am happy to tax cigarettes. I'm happy to tax the billboards and the ads. Happier to dump the subsidies for growing tobacco.

Call this tax a prepaid health plan for smokers -- buy your Marlboros now, get your cancer treatment later. Call it preventive medicine -- the higher the cost, the fewer kids who pick up the packs. Call it popular.

But don't call it a case of good versus evil. For heaven's sakes, don't call it a tax on sin.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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