Mass. Soda Tax Proposal Dead — For Now

In our last episode, on June 4, things were looking bad for the anti-obesity proposal to lift the state sales tax exemption on candy and soda — in effect, to tax the sugary stuff as non-food items. Our headline read, “Soda tax proposal survives near-death, up for debate this week.”

But it wasn’t exactly a cliffhanger; the prospects were clearly dim. And indeed, the legislative session ended on Jul. 31 and the measure, despite enthusiastic support from pediatricians and others, died.

I thought of it today, when I read about a new study in the journal Pediatrics reporting more evidence that restricting the sale of snacks and soda helps fight fat in kids and teens. “We should probably put a period on this sentence,” I thought, and called Andy Tarsy, head of the Alliance for Business Leadership, one of the groups pushing to lift the soda tax exemption, to ask him how he would wind up the story for us. Our conversation, lightly edited:

So what happened?

I don’t think there was ever a judgment on the merits. It was really a political environment where revenue was hard to talk about, and I think people are still waiting to be fully educated about the substance of this issue. And I think when that happens, there will be a lot of support for it.

Just to be a little more explicit: The Speaker of the House had promised no new taxes?

Speaker DeLeo was in a political environment where, for his own reasons, he was very wary of legislation that would add new taxes. And that concern comes from looking at the voting public going through a bad economy and a lot of stress, and it was a judgment that he is allowed to make as a political leader about what makes sense then. So he makes that judgment, it has a lot of influence and you have to live with that reality and come back later and say, ‘This is a better time to do this.’

What comes next?

Our role is in educating the business community about what the keys are to creating a long-term healthy economy, and we think this is a great symbol of two things, both public health and revenue policy. And how do we make decisions about what we tax and what we don’t? So they’re both great learning oppprtunities for business leaders who want to be part of the process. We don’t tend to be involved in the day-to-day of the legislature but we would certainly make it clear that we want to see this done, and all kinds of groups are legislatively focused, and they’ll make sure the bills will be filed, and we do think that will happen next session.

Meanwhile, today brought one more data point showing that restricting sugary food can help fight obesity.

I think the most important insight from that study is that problems have solutions. And we don’t have to accept things like child obesity as normal or as permanent. There are innovations in public policy, school policy, parenting, neighborhood development, business, there are ways of doing things better, and we need to find them. We have a crisis. Let’s take a look at what worked and decide what we want to do, but let’s not just stand still.

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