March 2 2010|07.58 AM UTC

Jonathan Rivers

13 Weird Taxes (And Tax Breaks) From Around The World

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Everyone knows that taxes are one of life’s only certainties. But while most of us are well acquainted with income and sales taxes, few of us are aware that some countries tax prostitution. The same goes for tax breaks. No one bats an eye about writing off some office supplies, but did you know that Germany (until recently) allowed businesses to deduct the cost of bribery? The United States and the rest of the world tax – and exempt from taxation – strange activities and behavior that virtually no one would have expected, or has any rational explanation for. Today, BillShrink combs some of the top financial websites online to gather thirteen of the weirdest taxes – and tax breaks – from around the world.

Illegal Drugs

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Perhaps the most puzzling tax in the entire world is the state of Tennessee’s tax on the possession of illegal drugs. According to CNN, “you have 48 hours to report to the Department of Revenue and pay your tax” on any illegal substance you purchase in Tennessee, after which you will get “stamps to affix to your illegal substance” which “serve as evidence you paid the tax on the illegal product.” Naturally, one might assume that such a tax would never be paid for fear of simultaneously being arrested for breaking drug possession laws. But in an even more perplexing twist, Tennessee does not require any identification whatsoever to get the stamps, and “it’s illegal for revenue employees to rat you out.” Nonetheless, voluntary compliance with this tax is quite rare. CNN reports that North Carolina, (which has a similar law) has seen “only 79 folks have voluntarily come forward since 1990″, with another 72,000 being taxed after they were discovered and arrested.

Prostitution

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Given that prostitution is explicitly banned by the laws of many countries, it might come as a surprise that some nations not only allow it, but tax it. In fact, the UK’s Daily Mail describes a particularly bizarre case of a teenage girl who auctioned off her virginity for £8,800 – apparently the going rate for a “weekend of sex with an Italian businessman.” But while 18 year old Romanian native Alina Percea undoubtedly saw the transaction as a harmless way to score some extra money, German tax officials determined that their 19% VAT tax could “land her with just over £3,000″ to pay in taxes before all is said and done.

Witchcraft

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In the Netherlands, citizens are apparently permitted to deduct the costs of training in the fine art of witchcraft. In their article on the 5 Most Bizarre Tax Deductions From Around the World, Mint.com refers to Margarita Rongen as a “tax verified witch”, citing the Daily Mail’s report on how Rongen had successfully deducting thousands of dollars in schooling. In Rongen’s case, “schooling” was a rather loose term, equating to courses “that are held 13 weekends a year closest to a full moon when outdoor rituals are practiced and potions boiled.” Among the many skills and aptitudes honed during witchcraft schooling are “healing with herbs and stones, making potions, divination and fortune telling with crystal balls and hieroglyphs.” Needless to say, Dutch citizens and members of Parliament were none too amused. However, as Rongen points out, this seldom utilized deduction is not new – it is simply getting more attention, and now has the support of a judge.

Weird Baby Names

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Until very recently, the Swedish Tax Authority had the power to decide whether the names parents chose for their children were acceptable – and forbid them from using names deemed to be “weird.” As Wikipedia states, the Swedish Tax Authority’s official take on the issue was that:

“First names shall not be approved if they can cause offense or can be supposed to cause discomfort for the one using it, or names which for some obvious reason are not suitable as a first name.”

This law has produced several humorous protests over the years, including a parent who named their baby boy “Brfxxccxxmnpcccclllmmnprxvclmnckssqlbb11116″ in 1991 in direct opposition to Swedish policies in 1991. More recently, in 2007, Michael and Karolina Tomato fought aggressively for the right to name their daughter “Metallica.” The Swedish government has evidently loosened up as of late however, with ParentDish.com reporting that parents are pushing the envelope with names like Elvis, Google and Lego. Swedish tax official Lars Tegenfeldt was quoted as saying that “changing times” have induced the Swedish Tax Authority to be less stringent in enforcing the odd name ban. While it isn’t a tax in the purest sense of the word, Sweden is likely the only nation in the world whose tax officials have the final say over what people’s names are. Strange indeed!

Pornography

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Italy didn’t make many friends in the adult entertainment world when Italian Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti successfully pushed a “25% tax on all hardcore pornography” through Parliament in 2005, according to the BBC. Despite pornography industry objections that their products are already taxed at the VAT level and that it is therefore illegal to single them out for a second tax, the Italian government ultimately prevailed, due to Rome’s desperation to “find new revenue because it has to trim its budget deficit to meet EU rules.” Tremonti, for his part, defended it as an “ethical” tax. A similar tax exists in France, and “will apply to all hardcore pornography, including films, magazines and merchandise sold in sex shops.” Whether the tax impeded the health and growth of Italy’s billion euro a year pornography industry was a concern most citizens did not seem to pay much attention to.

Bribery

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Germany’s second contribution to today’s article is even more bizarre than its first. A seldom-discussed and rarely used deduction in Germany’s tax law that permitted private businesses to write off the costs of bribery on their corporate income tax returns. According to BusinessWeek, the reason the deduction was not used more often is that it “requires names to be named” – both the business making the bribe and the business or individual accepting it. That being said, it’s still quite bizarre to hear about a western economic powerhouse like Germany not only permitting bribery within its borders, but exempting this universally condemned practice from income taxation. Quite understandably, German citizens without any ties to the business world were severely critical of this law, which was only eliminated in recent years.

Cow Flatulence

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Taxes on cow flatulence have been proposed in several European countries in recent years, including Ireland and Denmark. The Irish variant, which was ultimately defeated before it became law, called for a tax of $18 per animal, while Danish proposals were even more stringent, including levies “as high as $110 per cow” according to Fox News. The outcries for these taxes came on the heels of a U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization study claiming that 18% of the greenhouse gases believed to cause global warming can be traced back to the unsavory “byproducts” of livestock. The Danish Tax Commission took it even further, estimating that “a cow will emit four tons of methane a year in burps and flatulence” while an average car emits just 2.7 tons of carbon dioxide during the same period. Cow flatulence taxes may sadly soon become the norm, rather than a comical anomaly.

Playing Cards

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For reasons that may never be fully explained or understood, the state of Alabama singles out decks of playing cards for a unique tax of its own, TurboTax reports. CNN elaborates with more details, including the amount of the tax (10 cents), the criteria for determining which decks get taxed (those containing “no more than 54 cards”) and the taxes assessed on retailers themselves – “an annual license tax of $3 and a fee of $1.” Little is known about the exact origins of this tax or its original purpose, but one suspects it is a remnant from a much earlier era that was simply never phased out in modern times.

Forced Cigarette Smoking

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Virtually every industrialized nation taxes cigarettes, as they do most inelastic (few substitutes available) goods. However, we’re fairly confident in saying that China (the Hubei province, specifically) is the only nation, now or ever, to increase the revenue it earns from cigarette taxes by literally forcing their citizens to buy and smoke tobacco. The UK’s Telegraph reported in May 2009 that “local government officials in China have been ordered to smoke nearly a quarter of a million packs of cigarettes” as part of an unorthodox push to stimulate the economy during the financial crisis. Lest you wonder if the Telegraph was simply reprinting an April Fool’s joke from The Onion, it was confirmed that “even local schools have been issued with a smoking quota for teachers”, and one village was even “ordered to purchase 400 cartons of cigarettes a year for its officials”, as reported by a local government webpage. Furthermore, special fines were established for officials who “failed to meet their targets” or were “caught smoking rival brands manufactured in neighboring provinces.”

Tax Exempt Sex Toys

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While Italy has moved to heavily tax sex toys (among other pornographic products), MSNBC reported in 2006 that the Australian government had begun allowing “tax deductions for adult toys and lingerie.” While these deductions are restricted to prostitutes, strippers and dancers, the range of items they can deduct is quite broad, encompassing “condoms, lubricants, gels, oils [and a] myriad of other items.” Interestingly, MSNBC elaborates that these same individuals cannot deduct the cost of fitness classes to stay in shape, though they can deduct dance classes specifically. A complete list of deductible items for “the sex industry” is made available and routinely updated by the Australian Taxation Office, for those interested in keeping up with the latest write-offs for professionals in this field.

Strange Taxes “From The Vault”

As a humorous bonus, BillShrink selected the three strangest taxes from Know Your Money‘s “Weirdest Taxes of All Time” article. None of these taxes are still in effect, though if you ask us, it’d be quite funny if they were and the fact that they were once enforced makes them worthy of a passing mention. Enjoy!

Urine

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It would be difficult to come up with a more asinine activity to tax than urinating. Nevertheless, Roman Emperor Vespasian pushed such a tax through during his time on the throne (AD 69-79), applying it to “all of Rome’s many public toilets.” More specifically, the tax itself was paid by toilet operators for the collection of urine from public toilets. Urine was evidently quite a cash cow during ancient Roman times, as these toilet operators often sold it “at great profit to tanners and cleaners who utilized the liquid’s high ammonia content.” Know Your Money quips that maybe re-instituting this “admirable recycling of waste products” could go a long way toward the crusade for sustainable business practices that is currently in vogue.

Hats

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In 1874, the British government expanded its effort to tax people based on their accumulated wealth (rather than their current, yearly income) by slapping a unique tax on hats. The tax fell primarily on retailers, who were forced to apply for licenses and levy any number of different taxes as part o a “tiered tax system dependent upon the cost of the hat with mandatory tax-revenue stamps pasted in its lining.” Absurd as such a tax sounds today, it was taken quite seriously by buyers and sellers of hats during its heyday. Enraged at being taxed for their fashion choices, “many milliners and hat-wearers tried to dodge the tax by claiming that their headwear wasn’t actually a hat.” Eventually, the assessment and collection of hat taxes became so complex that the government codified a legal definition of a hat in 1804.

Beards

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Today’s pundits often remark that there is seemingly nothing our government wont tax. Never was this more true, however, than during Peter the Great’s tenure as Tsar of Russia. No stranger to odd and bizarre taxes (we’re talking about the man who taxed drinking water and beehives), Peter’s most absurd proposal of all became law in 1705 and levied taxes on men for the great sin of growing beards. Peter’s rationale for this impromptu tax was “coercing his countrymen into dropping archaic hirsutist customs”, thereby bringing them up to speed with “the clean-shaven citizens of modernized Western Europe.” Indeed, Peter was more fond of these types of taxes than perhaps any ruler of his time. Know Your Money reports that he even established an entire committee for the purpose of dreaming up wacky new taxes for Peter to implement.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

ZB March 2, 2010 at 1:50 pm

What about the Canadian tax?

We pay extra tax (built into the cost of the product so that most consumers don’t realize it) on every blank digital media sold, including DVD-ROM, CD-ROM, hard drives, etc.

Why?

To cover a fee paid into a general fund for the recording and movie industry, because they assume we are going to use the media for pirating music and movies.

It’s illegal to actually do the pirating, however we pay licensing fees for something which we’re not allowed to actually do.

Reply

Doug March 2, 2010 at 3:46 pm

Great article– except one thing: it doesn’t even explain what a “tax” is! You can’t write an article based on some obscure concept without some explanation as to what the concept is. Besides, the author wasn’t ever careful enough to spellcheck! Last time I checked, it’s spelled “tacks.”

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bla March 3, 2010 at 10:26 am

it’s tax not tacks. check again

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Rae D March 3, 2010 at 11:48 am

Actually anyone in the US and most countires who buy blank media products, DVDs, CDs, tapes pay a tax for that same reason.

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Degradation March 3, 2010 at 7:14 pm

What I found funny is that there is actually a legal definition for a “hat”

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Bob Harper March 4, 2010 at 8:42 am

What about the tax on windows in the UK?

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hugh March 10, 2010 at 3:48 am

Doug – if you need to known the meaning of “tax” – where hae you been hiding ?

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zbb is wrong March 21, 2010 at 9:21 am

ZB said: It’s illegal to actually do the pirating, however we pay licensing fees for something which we’re not allowed to actually do.

Not so. You pay that levy (on the blank media) for the statutory right to make copies for personal use.

See the Copyright Act, s. 80 in particular, here:
http://laws.justice.gc.ca/eng/C-42/page-5.html#anchorbo-ga:l_VIII

Reply

Anonymous July 13, 2011 at 8:52 pm

What about the blueberry tax in maine???????

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Anonymous November 29, 2011 at 9:07 am

Blueberries are a major product in Maine

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