The wages of sin are taxes: A reflection on shisha

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By Sunday Memba

David Hume, the Scottish philosopher, once reflected on humanity and wondered about the ease with which the many are governed by the few, and the implicit submission with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers.

How is it that a cabinet secretary can prohibit the use of a substance that a populace has embraced as pleasure of their own? Even though our current grundnorm explicitly guarantees that the people’s power can be exercised by our elected representatives, it does provide that this power must be exercised according to the wishes and aspirations of Kenyans. Thus, where the wishes and aspirations of Kenyans is to smoke shisha, our representatives do not have a mandate to dismiss it as and when they wish.

Let me declare from the outset that this writer is not a consumer of the now-forbidden pot of tobacco. Nonetheless, the power to read and write empowers me to open this Pandora’s Box (or pot), to examine the best cause of action the Cabinet Secretary for health Dr Cleophas Mailu would have considered before prohibiting shisha. In the same vein, it is critical to understand that hookah, as shisha is also known, is indeed a malady to the human body.

Hookah has been labelled by the World Health Organisation as harmful to the human body. The WHO estimates that a single smoking session of shisha is equivalent to smoking close to one hundred cigarettes. This kind of report should indeed shock any user of the substance. Worse, shisha is linked to lung cancer and other forms of diseases. Notably, it is also concocted with brands of drugs like marijuana and cocaine, which not only raises its potency but also its effects. Be that as it may, the fact that we live in a Libertarian world means each person makes his or her life choices as long as they do not affect those of others. This is the reality that we must be alive to before prohibiting shisha.

Tax it instead. Heavily

Although this may be an attempt to lock the stable door after the horse has bolted, it is still the right cause of action that should have been considered before illegalising the use of shisha. The silver bullet to this issue is to tax it heavily. Popularly known as “sin tax”, taxing of commodities or services that adversely affect the lives of people is the modus operandi that governments (including Kenya) have embraced in curbing vices and building the nation. It is the better option to taking the path as slippery and unreliable as prohibiting it. Consider the kind of tax imposed on prostitution, tobacco and gambling.

Sin taxes are beneficial in a number of ways. Noteworthy, it may be the only means to drive the vice out of society. This is evident by the recent tax on the gambling industry in Kenya where companies have opted to stop minting money from the citizens due to tax what they call “outrageous tax”, thus ensuring the betting plague does not continue. Moreover, sin taxes contributes handsomely to a nation’s income; by any estimation, this is a good thing.

Furthermore, sin taxes are a good way of controlling behaviour. The upside here is that if we can prevent this pastime from being driven underground, we will avoid a bigger disaster, and benefit from it at the same time. In the American film Gotham City, Mayor Oswald Cobblepot introduces tax on crime, causing crime levels to drop dramatically to give way for an era of unprecedented peace. To achieve good things for a country, we must do bad things sometimes. We must break the egg to make an omelette, as it were. Banning shisha just because our neighbours did is just about the most asinine policy decision we have made this year. ^

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