Paying the Price for Vice: The Evolving Landscape of Excise Taxes in America

While excise or vice taxes have long been a part of the American tax landscape related to alcohol and cigarettes, the recent invention of vaping and legalization of marijuana and other substances is changing the landscape.

What Are Excise Taxes?

Excise taxes are taxes on specific types of consumable products such as alcohol or tobacco for one of two reasons. First, as vice taxes in order to raise revenue to cover the costs related to consumption; and second, to deter consumption itself. Unlike other types of consumption taxes such as sales tax, these are specific to certain products.

Do They Change Behavior?

Theoretically, when you increase the price of a product such as alcohol through the addition of excise taxes, demand should go down. While this may be a deterrent and limit demand, excise taxes certainly haven’t proven to be a feasible way to eliminate behaviors. A pack of cigarettes can cost upward of $15 in major cities, but there are still people smoking. It’s a similar situation with drinking and gambling.

It’s All About the Benjamins

While we think of excise taxes as vice taxes today in many respects, the main point isn’t to change behavior – it is to raise revenue. Excise taxes pre-date the United States and were one of the main forms of government funding in America before income tax was created. Alcohol taxation goes back to George Washington’s presidency and incited the infamous Whiskey Rebellions. Cigarette taxes were introduced as a way to pay for the Civil War. In the end, it’s about the money generated as there are easier and more effective ways to regulate behavior.

New Products Equal New Taxes

The legalization of marijuana by states raises the issue of excise taxes on this product. Unlike tobacco, where one of the goals is to decrease consumption, the situation here is more one of legalizing something to raise consumption and generate revenue as a result.

Marijuana taxation is more akin to alcohol in the years following prohibition. In both cases, you have large-scale illegal operations and illicit consumption with the aim of moving them to legitimate status. In this sense, it’s different than other vice taxes. 

Initially, at least, the authorized market will have to operate in parallel with the black market for the same product, limiting the amount of taxes that can be raised when there is still an unregulated and untaxed alternative.

Beyond Marijuana

Aside from marijuana, there are other new products that could be taxed and generate revenue, the most notable being vapor products. While vaping products are not really that new, the market is just growing to a substantial size.

Taxing vaping products is more complicated and problematic. Some consider these products to be just as harmful as cigarettes, while others not so much. There is evidence that nicotine consumed via vaping is less harmful than through smoking cigarettes.

Theoretically then, the government should apply less taxes as a result if the harm and therefore cost to society is less.  The problem with this is that less revenue is raised. As noted before, we come back to the issue that vice taxes are often revenue-raising tools disguised as public safety measures.

Too Successful For Its Own Good

Vice taxes can be too successful, with tobacco as the best example. While people may stop buying cigarettes, they don’t stop consuming cigarettes; instead, they buy them elsewhere.

For example, more than 50 percent of cigarettes consumed in New York are purchased out of state. If you push too far, people will react.

Conclusion

Excise and vice taxes are here to stay. While varying arguments can be made that they benefit society by shaping behaviors, it is undeniable that state, local and the federal government are addicted to the revenue generated.

What To Know About Filing For Bankruptcy

About one million Americans file for personal bankruptcy each year, with one in 10 households having filed at some point. Given the loss of jobs, reduced income, and the coronavirus recession in 2020, those numbers could increase this year if the economic recovery is not both swift and omnipresent.

There are two main types of personal bankruptcy: Chapter 7 and Chapter 13. Chapter 7, which is the more common option, will liquidate the filer’s assets in order to discharge all or a portion of the outstanding debt. People generally choose this route because they are in way over their heads and do not earn enough income to pay their debts in any type of normal time frame.

Chapter 13, on the other hand, provides some immediate breathing room while helping the filer develop a payment plan based on a reduced percentage of the debt. This percentage is determined by how much he makes and what he can feasibly pay each month. While a Chapter 7 bankruptcy remains on your credit report for 10 years, while Chapter 13 bankruptcy is a bit less punitive staying on record for only seven years. As the filer works to pay down his debt and sticks to his plan, his credit score will gradually improve over time. In some cases, the debtor may be able to apply for an FHA, VA, or USDA home loan a year after his bankruptcy filing, or two to four years if applying for a conventional mortgage.

Bankruptcy can provide immediate relief from creditors calling and threatening to evict, foreclose, repossess, shut off, or garnish wages. However, be prepared for some level of pain, such as the bankruptcy court seizing property to be sold to pay your creditors, and/or your credit cards being canceled.

You may see television ads to get debt relief without having to file bankruptcy. Be aware that while these programs may negotiate a debt settlement to something you can better afford, they will not skirt the wrath of the dreaded credit rating agencies. Any time an entity negotiates a reduction in your debt, this will show up as a negative factor on your credit score, and will likely remain that way for many years. A more recent issue that not everyone is aware of is that some employers have started checking the credit reports of job applicants. This makes it all the more difficult to pay off your debt if you can’t get a job because of your past payment history. Your best option is to secure a reliable income before you work with a debt relief agency or file for bankruptcy.

Before entering any type of debt relief program, it’s a good idea to consult with a qualified, non-profit credit counseling agency for a free debt analysis. Don’t go to just anyone; make sure it is a legitimate resource which, by law, is required to serve your best interest. Shady debt counseling vendors are inclined to recommend a debt solution that works out better for the agency than their clients.

If you do decide to file for bankruptcy, be aware that court fees cost about $300, plus lawyer fees tend to run between $1,000 and $3,000 for a Chapter 7 filing and approximately $3,000 to $6,000 for a Chapter 13 filing.

Deciding if a Roth IRA Conversion is For You

Roth IRAs can be a powerful tax tool, but they are often misunderstood and misused. Investment income in Roth IRAs compound tax-free and most distributions are tax-free as well. Another benefit is that there are no required minimum distributions (RMDs) throughout the original owner’s life. Long-term Roth distributions are tax-free to the beneficiaries who inherit the IRA as long as they fully distribute the Roth within 10 years of inheriting.

As the annual contribution limits are rather small, most Roth IRA contributions are made by converting a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA. The downside to conversion is that you’ll have to pay tax on the gross amount converted. Considering this can require a substantial cash outlay and that all the Roth IRA benefits are backloaded, deciding to make a conversion can be a difficult call.

Most people aren’t sure it will pay off in the long term and don’t like the idea of paying taxes now instead of in the future. Consequently, too often people try to make a conversion decision through intuition instead of objectively considering the important factors.

It’s best to use a spreadsheet to do an analysis or work with a tax advisor because you will need to consider many factors, including assumptions about tax rates, investment returns, how long you’ll own the accounts, how much you will convert, etc.

Generally, a conversion becomes more advantageous if tax rates increase and this impact is compounded by higher investment returns. Finally, remember that you can leave the Roth to your heirs who can take distributions tax-free.

Roth IRA conversions are not the right option for everyone, but where it’s appropriate the benefits can be substantial.