National Opinions

Why's the tax on your cellphone higher than on cigarettes?

You can often determine the societal attitudes toward a certain product by the way it is taxed.

Take cigarettes, for example.

In North Carolina, a state where tobacco is a huge agricultural industry, the state tax on cigarettes is 45 cents a pack. In New York, where tobacco use is mainly viewed as a drain on public health expenses, that same pack of cigarettes is taxed by the state at $4.35 cents.

I was thinking about these so-called "sin" taxes when considering Florida's high taxes on cellular telephones.

The way cellphones are taxed in Florida, you'd think they were, like cigarettes and booze, one of those vices that merit punitively high taxes.

If you have a cellphone in Florida, you pay more taxes on that phone than cellphone users do in 46 other states, the Tax Foundation, a Washington-D.C.-based research organization, reported this month.

Florida is much less punitive when it comes to booze and cigarettes.

Half of the 50 states have a higher cigarette tax than Florida's $1.34-per-pack tax on smokes. And 18 states have a higher excise tax on liquor than Florida does.

Florida is more aggressive when it comes to taxing beer and wine, but the rates there don't make much sense.

The state collects 48 cents a gallon on beer, while wine sold in 750 milliliter bottles -- which is 19.8 percent of gallon -- is taxed at $2.25 per bottle. Go figure.

But cellphones are the worst when it comes to aggressive taxation.

I looked at the fine print on my current bill. I have a family plan with five phones.

There are six different taxes and fees -- some federal, some state -- for each individual line. It comes out to a total of $39.90 per month in cellphone taxes.

Paying 50 cents per line for 911 service fee seems reasonable. After all, the money to maintain 911 emergency phone service has to come from somewhere, so it might as well come from phone users. But is it really necessary to pay a monthly charge to help phone carriers shoulder the cost of investing in broadband?

And then there's the $3 per month per line for something called the "Florida State Communications Tax," which shouldn't be confused with the additional city tax every Floridian pays on each phone line.

Florida cellphone users end up paying 16.55 percent state taxes on their cellphone bills and another 5.82 percent in federal taxes, putting combined monthly taxes on wireless service at 22.38 percent -- more than triple the state sales tax.

Georgians pay half the state rate that Florida residents do. But it's cellphone users in Oregon who pay the least with only 1.76 percent in state taxes on top of the federal rate.

Cellphones might have been a luxury once, but they're not anymore.

"Cellphones are increasingly the sole means of communication and connectivity for many Americans, particularly those struggling to overcome poverty," the Tax Foundation report said. "At the end of 2013, according to surveys by the Centers for Disease Control, over 56 percent of all poor adults had only wireless service, and nearly 40 percent of all adults were wireless only."

Maybe there's a subtle message here for Florida's cellphone users, a way to use taxation to steer consumers toward more desirable forms of behavior.

Put down the phone, the message seems to be saying, and light up a cigarette with that glass of whiskey.

Frank Cerabino, writes for The Palm Beach Post. E-mail: frank_cerabino@pbpost.com.

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