What is a Vice Tax?

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  • Written By: Niki Foster
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 12 October 2019
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A vice tax, also sometimes called a sin tax, is the colloquial name for the sumptuary tax, levied on items considered to be immoral luxuries. The purpose of the vice tax can be double fold; it is often used to fund a special project, and it discourages the consumption of the targeted "vice." Some common examples of vices that may be taxed are cigarettes, alcohol, and gambling.

In some cases, revenues collected from a vice tax are used to fund programs related to the taxed item or behavior. For example, a tax charged on tobacco may be used to fund anti-tobacco public education programs or to treat tobacco-related diseases. In this way, the vice tax serves to counteract some of the social ills resulting from the "vice."

In other cases, vice tax revenues are used to benefit the community in other ways, not necessarily related to the taxed item. A city may use the vice tax to fund the construction of a new school or stadium, for instance. Some argue that a city in which a large population indulge a particular vice, such as a college town where heavy drinking is rampant, can benefit from a vice tax because it requires increased city maintenance and law enforcement.


A relatively new idea for a vice tax, yet to be implemented, is the so-called "fat tax" on unhealthy snack food items. This hypothetical tax, endorsed by the World Health Organization (WHO), would be used to subsidize healthier foods, making them available to a wider range of people, as well as to educate the public about the importance of their food choices. This illustrates the main idea behind the vice tax: in a free society, people can choose to engage in legal activities that may negatively affect the larger community, but a sin tax ensures that society also benefits from their choices.


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