Let’s Tax Christmas Trees … To Help Sell More Christmas Trees

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The number of real Christmas trees sold has reportedly been dropping—from, for example, 37 million in 1991 to 31 million in 2007. By some indication, sales of artificial Christmas trees have also soared in recent years. To push consumers away from fake trees and back to the real deal, the Department of Agriculture just announced a new solution, in effect for this holiday season: Make each tree 15¢ more expensive, thanks to a new tax. Won’t that make jolly holiday revelers run out and buy real trees?

This isn’t exactly how the tax is being proposed, of course. But that’s the net effect in the marketplace.

[UPDATE: ABC News reports that this afternoon, the Obama administration announced it is delaying introduction of this new Christmas tree tax. It is unclear whether the tax will be cancelled for good, launched sometime in the future, or otherwise changed. We’ll provide more updates as decisions are made.]

People in the business of selling real Christmas trees must hate the new tax, right? Wrong. They’re the people supporting the tax. Most of them anyway.

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The Christmas Tree Promotion Now, as it’s known, was spearheaded by tree sellers, who want to use the money collected via the tax—estimated to add up to roughly $2 million annually—to launch a PR campaign aimed at convincing consumers to buy (yep, you guessed it) real Christmas trees.

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The tax adds a flat 15¢ to the sale of each real, fresh-cut Christmas tree by a medium- or big-seller—defined as any business that sells 500 or more trees annually. The tax is in effect for the next three years. After that, it’ll be reevaluated, and then the tax could either killed, continued, or, who knows, possibly even increased.

Somewhere, the Grinch’s mouth is curling into that wonderful awful Grinch smile.

Such a tax, while backwards from the perspective of many consumers, is not unprecedented. The money for all of those “Got Milk?” and “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner” ads, which are supposed to entice more consumers into buying milk and beef, are ultimately paid for by consumers. Tourism bureaus have been known to lobby for increases on hotel, rental car, and airport taxes so that the extra revenues can be used to (yep) attract more tourists via advertisements and PR promotions. Tourism industry officials in Los Angeles, for example, wanted to jack up hotel taxes last year.

But back to the forest: Is the tax really necessary? Are consumers falling out of love with real Christmas trees? Is an advertising campaign essential to avoiding a monumental shift toward fake trees instead of real ones? It doesn’t seem so.

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According to the National Christmas Tree Association, the number of real trees sold has ebbed and flowed throughout the years. In 2010, 27 million real trees were sold, which is about the same as in 2004. Some years have stronger real tree sales than others, and the association points out that consumers overwhelmingly still prefer the real thing:

Real Trees outsell fake trees by an almost 3 to 1 margin.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.