A few days ago a 10 percent federal “tanning tax” took effect. The tax is one of the revenue-generating provisions of the “health care reform” bill. It applies only to tanning beds and other devices that use ultraviolet rays to give customers tans and is expected to generate some $2.7 billion in annual revenue. The stated purpose of the tax is to fill federal coffers while at the same time discouraging people from engaging in risky behavior. Is indoor tanning really more risky than sitting out in the summer sun without using any sunblock? Both approaches expose the skin to ultraviolet rays, but a recent study (criticized by some industry groups) concludes that indoor tanning is a special risk factor for melanoma. Interestingly, the “tanning tax” replaced a different tax — dubbed the “Botax” — that would have put a 5 percent tax on Botox injections, breast implants, and other forms of elective cosmetic surgery. The “Botax” was rejected after heavy lobbying by doctors and the medical industry.
I don’t use indoor tanning salons and can’t imagine doing so — but I question the underlying concept of the “tanning tax.” Do we really want to get into the habit of taxing what the federal government considers to be risky behavior? Should sports cars and motorcycles be taxed at higher rates than sedans? Should mountain climbers, skydivers, and participants in extreme sports should be taxed more heavily than couch potatoes? We are moving beyond “sin taxes” on alcohol, tobacco, and gambling to a new realm of governmental efforts to modify human behavior — and I am not comfortable that the government is well-situated to make those kinds of judgments.
The “tanning tax” is a good example of what can happen when the government makes these kinds of decisions. The “Botax” would have produced more revenue than the “tanning tax,” but it had powerful opponents who were able to derail that initiative. Most tanning salons, in contrast, are locally owned small businesses without significant political clout. In the test of political muscle, the tanning salon owners lost. Political clout doesn’t seem like the most scientific way to determine behavioral modification goals, however.
One other point about the “tanning tax” is worth mentioning. Tanning salons are sources of jobs and shopping center leases in virtually every community. The local owners of those businesses are concerned that the tax will cause customers to cut back on their visits and thereby force some tanning salons out of business. It is too soon to tell, of course, whether those dire predictions will come to pass — but in these difficult economic times why are we taking steps that might put small businesses into bankruptcy and cost scarce jobs?