Now that Obamacare has actually passed, after some pundits declared that Scott Brown’s election meant it was all but dead, people are starting to examine the myriad rules and taxes contained in the thousand-plus-page bill. Some are meant to raise funds for this new entitlement. Case in point: the tanning tax. Customers of artificial sun-beds will now pay an additional 10% tax on their sessions. Democrats say it will raise $2.7 billion over the next decade. (The tax goes into effect July 1, so you can still cheaply rid yourself of your pasty winter white for any Memorial Day beach cookouts, at least.) What’s interesting is what this tax replaced. In the bill’s earlier incarnation, there was no 10% tanning tax but instead a 5% cosmetic surgery tax, which was estimated to bring in $5 billion over the next ten years. This so-called “Botax” was killed, apparently after lobbyist pressure.
There might be some overlap between the groups affected, but it seems to me these two taxes target different people. Women (and men) who can afford Botox and other cosmetic luxuries tend to be a wealthier bunch—as anyone who’s seen any of the entries in The Real Housewives television franchise can attest. These services aren’t cheap. But tanning is a relatively inexpensive way to increase your attractiveness quotient, and the people who patronize tanning salons tend to be in a less wealthy demographic. They’re also more likely to be found in the flyover states: “The Midwest and Southeast have the highest number of tanning salons per capita.” It’s not just the customers who differ; the owners do, too. Cosmetic procedures are mostly done by doctors. Most tanning salons are small businesses and most are owned by women, though only a quarter of businesses in other industries are female-owned. This is a class issue. The tanning tax just might be a regressive tax, especially compared to the Botax that would have raised almost double the money.
Some say the tanning tax is for our own good. It’s a species of argument of which we are certain to see more, now that the federal government has taken on additional responsibility for healthcare. Tanning beds cause cancer, critics say, so pricing them into unpopularity will save lives—and medical costs. (Devotees counterclaim that exposure to UV helps alleviate Seasonal Affective Disorder and provides the Vitamin D of which researchers tells us we need more.)
Observers joked that the tanning tax was the real reason House Minority Leader John Boehner was against the healthcare reform bill. If that’s the case, perhaps it was Nancy Pelosi, and not lobbyists, who got rid of the Botax.