Once again the policy debates in the Executive and Legislative departments of government about the taxation of the so-called “sin products” like tobacco and alcohol are heating up. The Department of Finance has been advocating a single tax for all these products with the objective of significantly raising revenues by as much as R20 billion. The tobacco industry is objecting to the single tax on the ground that there could be a large decline in the demand for the product, thus defeating the very purpose of raising more revenues. The issue can only be resolved with the use of empirical data showing that the demand for tobacco products is price-elastic, i.e., a price increase will lead to a large decline in the quantity demanded of the product. There is also the objection that having a single tax will prejudice the poor, who are now benefiting from the multi-tiered approach of taxing cigarettes, since lower-priced tobacco products are taxed at lower rates. There is also strong opposition from farmers’ groups who claim that the proposed tax increase could harm the two million people dependent on the industry for their means of livelihood.
Prescinding from the economic arguments on both sides of this debate, let me pose the philosophical question of whether or not these products deserve the monicker “sin.” A sin in the theological sense is an act performed with knowledge and full consent which violates one of the commandments of God. Is the act of smoking or drinking alcohol in itself sinful? The answer to this question may be found in paragraph No. 2290 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church which states that “the virtue of temperance disposes us to avoid every kind of excess: The abuse of food, alcohol, tobacco, or medicine. Those incur grave guilt, who, by drunkenness or a love of speed, endanger their own and others’ safety on the road, at sea, or in the air.” It may be inferred from this point of the Catechism that tobacco and alcohol are put in the same category as food and medicine, which in themselves are not inherently evil. On the contrary, they are good but their consumption can be abused. It is the abuse or the intemperate use of food or medicine that can be evil.
Tobacco and alcohol can be considered good in that, like all created things, they have come from the hands of the Creator. Everything that is part of creation is good. What introduces evil to this world is man himself when he sins. The pleasure that some people find in smoking or drinking is also something that is part of creation. In fact, every bodily pleasure can be attributed to the very act of creation. Any pleasure is morally permitted as long as it is enjoyed within the bounds of reason. For example, the pleasure inherent to the conjugal act is not only morally permissible but actually holy if it is open to life. The pleasure found in eating is also holy if it is obtained with temperance and regard for one’s health. The peculiar thing about alcohol and tobacco is that they are substances introduced into the body for the purpose of affecting the nervous system and managing our feelings and emotions. Alcohol, when taken moderately, is a beverage and can be good for the health, as in the case of red wine. Tobacco, although dangerous to the health, may in the light of human frailty be necessary to some individuals in fighting stress and soothing nerves. Thus, there are practical reasons for the use of alcohol and tobacco. They are consumed not exclusively for the pleasure derived.
Those of us who are non-smokers should respect the right of the smokers to indulge in the legitimate pleasure as long as they do it in the prescribed places where there is no danger to the health of innocent bystanders. The fact that there is a scientifically proven correlation between smoking and diseases like lung cancer is something that each smoker should in conscience consider seriously under the advice of a spiritual director. Because a statistical correlation is not a physical certainty, however, every smoker has enough leeway to take a calculated risk to his health in order to enjoy the legitimate pleasure of smoking.
Prudence and temperance are especially to be exercised in the consumption of tobacco and alcohol because they can easily be addicting. These moral considerations should be kept in mind in the ongoing debates about increasing the taxes on tobacco and alcohol.
If there are objects that deserve fully being called “sin products,” they are the condoms, pills and other objects that are the means used in the sexual act that can lead to artificial contraception or abortion.
Fortunately, the recent encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI entitled Charity in Truth reminded us of the unchangeable doctrine that both abortion and artificial contraception are inherently evil acts that no extenuating circumstance can render morally permissible. For comments, my e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.