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Benjamin Franklin famously said,
“In this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes.”
What isn’t certain is exactly what we get taxed on, and people have had to pay some very strange taxes. As a bit of fun, we thought we’d explore the bizarre world of tax legislation and see what’s out there.
So without further ado, here’s a section of the weirdest and wackiest tax rules!
1. Window Tax – Britain
Would you live in the dark to save on taxes? That’s exactly what large numbers of property owners did in 1696.
Under the rule of King William III, tax collectors decided the best way to measure the value of a property was to count the windows. The logic was that the wealthier a person is, the bigger the house, and therefore, the more windows it has.
The response was inevitable. Rich people worked out that bricking up windows would reduce their tax bill. It darkened countless homes, depriving countless people of daylight.
The hated tax has not been forgotten. If you have said: ‘It’s Daylight Robbery’ when faced with overpricing, you may not have realised it, but you were referring to William III’s despised tax.
2. Porn Tax – Italy
In 2005, Italian Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti took a stiff approach by imposing a 25% tax on all hardcore pornography.
Italy’s porn industry was estimated to be worth more than one billion euros a year and Silvio Berlusconi’s government was keen to get their hands on some of the cash to tackle the country’s deficit. Linked to this, subscribers to televised porn channels were also hit with an extra 10% in VAT.
3. Hot Air Balloon Tax – United States
Everyone likes a tax loophole, right? But sometimes it is easier just to pay the tax. If you live in Kansas and sell your house, you won’t be subject to tax providing you move into a hot air balloon. For a sizeable tax saving, that could be an attractive option. But hold, on there’s a catch. Hot air balloons that are tethered to the ground – and stay there – are taxed. So to avoid tax, said hot air balloon needs to be flying and always flying!
4. Fat Tax – Japan
On discovering that being overweight increases the chances of becoming seriously ill with Covid-19, Boris Johnson is embarking on a war on obesity. But will he go as far as the Japanese did in 2008?
To tackle expanding waistlines, they taxed inches.
Under the ‘Metabo’ law, men and women with waists larger than 35.5” were given dietary advice, but, if they didn’t stick to it, they have force-fed a bigger tax bill instead!
5. Chinese Head Tax – Canada
During the mid-19th century, thousands of Chinese immigrants took a lengthy trip to Canada to work on the Canadian Pacific Railway, a massive transport link to British Columbia.
Not only were Canada’s eastern visitors paid half as much as other workers, but they were also expected to pay the Chinese Head Tax, which taxed the entry of Chinese immigrants into the country.
They had to shell out anything up to $500, which was particularly harsh when you consider that they typically earned $1 a day.
6. Coward’s Tax – England, France & Germany
Don’t fancy going into battle? It will cost you!
A so-called ‘Cowards’ Tax (otherwise known as a Scutage Tax) was levied by King Henry I of England, which allowed knights to opt-out of fighting wars by paying a fee. King John levied so much money through this tax, that the Magna Carta of 1215 was instigated to limit the monarch’s power.
A similar tax was also levied in France and Germany.
7. Beard tax – England & Russia
Beards have often been costly. King Henry VIII introduced a levy on facial hair in 1535, although presumably, he didn’t pay the tax for his beard. His daughter Elizabeth I also levied a duty on facial hair.
Peter the Great of Russia was another beard-taxer. He wanted Russia to follow the clean-shaven fashions in the west. From 1698, anyone who wanted to avoid shaving had to buy a special coin imprinted with the words:
“The beard is a superfluous burden”.
8. Cow flatulence tax – Denmark
Cows are known to be major contributors of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere due to their habit of passing wind. It is such a concern that Denmark farmers face a cow flatulence levy of DK600 (£72.50) per cow.
9. Shadows – Italy
You would think that in a hot Italian town, a respite from the overbearing sun would be more than welcome. But in 1993, a nationwide law was introduced charging 100 a year from shopkeepers whose signs created shade on public walkways. Another tax also hit Italian store owners whose awnings create shade or who put tables or chairs outside their shop.
In practice, it is rarely enforced, but some towns have been happy to take the cash, including the Prosecco-producing town of Conegliano.
10. Not smoking tax – China
Smoking taxes are common throughout the world, largely due to the burden placed on health services by such an unhealthy practice.
However, in 2009, residents of the Chinese Hubei province found themselves in the opposite situation: smoke cigarettes or face a fine. The province felt it wasn’t earning enough from cigarette taxes, so it set a quota to ensure people smoked more.
The goal was to both gain revenue from cigarette taxes and encourage financial prosperity for local cigarette makers.
Not all taxes are as mad as these!
Alex Mann is a Director in the Tax Division at Harvey John.
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From boutiques to the Big 4, and start-ups to multinational corporations, Alex manages a diverse portfolio of clients worldwide which has enabled him to develop a vast global network of indirect tax and tax technology professionals in 40+ countries.