soda tax

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Should Massachusetts Tax Candy And Soda?

Are candy and soda food?

Yes, in Massachusetts, candy and soda are considered food and are exempt from the state’s 6.25 percent sales tax. But Gov. Deval Patrick wants to change that. He’s asking the Legislature to start taxing every bag of M&M’s and bottle of Pepsi you buy.

“Half of the people in the commonwealth are overweight or obese,” says Massachusetts Public Health Commissioner Dr. Lauren Smith. “A third of our kids are overweight or obese. Those are pretty daunting statistics, so the idea of adjusting the price of things that we know are associated with [obesity] makes sense.”

Public Health Commissioner Lauren Smith says taxing soda will discourage consumption

Public Health Commissioner Lauren Smith says taxing soda will discourage consumption. (Martha Bebinger/WBUR)

Smith says taxing candy and soda would raise about $53 million a year for general state spending. A coalition known as Healthy People, Healthy Economy is working with Rep. Kay Khan, of Newton, on a bill that would put candy and soda tax revenue into the state’s prevention and wellness trust fund.

But will adding roughly a dime to the cost of a soda make kids reach for something healthier instead?

“A small tax will have a small impact, a larger tax will have a larger impact. I mean, there’s just no way around that,” says Lisa Powell, a public health professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Powell says applying the sales tax to soda would cut consumption by 7 to 8 percent, based on what’s happened in 35 other states. She says that’s a small but significant decrease that might be undermined if the state taxes just soda, “because you’re going to have substitution from soda to fruit drinks that have a lot of sugar in them, energy drinks, sports drinks.”

Powell says her research shows that “black children are twice as likely to be heavy fruit drink consumers, and white youth are twice as likely than their black counterparts to be heavy soda consumers. So you’ll miss different groups … if you only tax certain types of drinks.”

“I don’t think the governor should be picking and choosing what people are drinking,” says David Arons, a lawyer from Sharon, who opposes any new taxes. Continue reading

Tax Soda? How About Making Fruits And Veggies Cheaper, Too?

Prof. Sean Cash of Tufts University (Kelvin Ma/Tufts University)

Prof. Sean Cash of Tufts University (Kelvin Ma/Tufts University)

[Readers, please weigh in: Even putting the soda tax issue aside, should government intervene to make fresh fruits and vegetables cheaper?]

Last July 31, a proposal to tax soda in Massachusetts officially died.

Temporarily, that is. Now, it lives again. Last week, Gov. Deval Patrick revived it in his state budget, calling to lift the sales tax exemptions on candy and soft drinks.

Just to recap: Since candy and soda are considered food (though we could certainly debate whether they should be), they carry no sales tax when you buy them. Anti-obesity advocates have been pushing to change that. A couple of states — Washington and Colorado — have restored the sales tax to sugary stuff, but the political battles are hard.

Here, though Massachusetts tends to be a highly progressive state on issues of health, the soda tax proposal just couldn’t gather the political momentum it needed in the last legislative session.

Now that the idea appears headed back onto the political front-burner, I spoke with Sean Cash, an associate professor at Tufts and an economist who has worked on food taxes and how they influence consumer choices. Our conversation, lightly edited:

So what do you think of soda taxes?

It is a little perverse right now that we’re favoring the soda and not favoring something healthier just because it was steamed and spiced a little.

It depends on the motivation. In general, from the health point of view, the discussion has been, “Let’s tax soda: It’s not good for you, and if we raise the prices, people will drink less of it.” That’s all true — when prices go up you buy less, but with soda, and food and beverages in general, we don’t buy a lot less. It’s what an economist calls inelastic. We do pay attention to price, but not a huge amount. It’s hard to get people to stop drinking what they like by using price. I can get people to switch brands pretty easily, at least for today, but to get people to stop drinking soda, a tax is a blunt instrument.

The flip side is, if I raise the price and you don’t drink less, it’s a great way of raising revenue. Though the evidence shows that it is regressive: Lower-income people will pay more, not just relative to their income but in absolute terms as well, because lower-income people tend to spend more on soft drinks.

The way Patrick is doing it is less concerning, because he’s wrapping it up in a whole reform of sales tax, to lower the sales tax by about a percentage point but extend it to cover sodas and candy. So the increased taxation on soda would be somewhat regressive, but sales taxes in general are regressive, because lower-income people save less money and spend a higher percent. Continue reading

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? Continue reading

Soda Tax Proposal Survives Near-Death, Up For Debate This Week

We’ve been hearing for many months about a brewing proposal to lift the state sales tax exemption on soda and candy (including this CommonHealth opinion piece in favor of the idea, by two leading pediatricians.) But in the bubbling political ferment in the State House over cutting health costs, nothing is a done deal until it’s a done deal.

So though many public-health-oriented personae have come out in favor of lifting the soda tax exemption — including the Healthy People/Healthy Economy coalition way back in late 2010 — for a while it was looking last week like the actual soda-tax amendment might not be filed and the proposal might not even come up for debate this legislative session.

That’s what I hear from Andy Tarsy, head of the Alliance for Business Leadership (formerly known as the Progressive Business Leaders Network) and one of the leading forces pushing for the soda exemption to be lifted. But he says he’s happy to report that Reps. Khan of Newton, Lewis of Winchester and Sciortino of Medford did move to add the soda-tax amendment to the pending health reform bill on Friday, and it could come up for debate tomorrow or Wednesday. The revenue from the soda and candy taxes would go into a fund to promote prevention and wellness.

“The good news is that prevention efforts and funding for public health are going to be at the center of the debate in the House this week,” he said, “and that closing the loophole that takes soda outside of the sales tax will be on the table — along with closing the loopholes that affect tobacco products. And that debate is essential to making the commonwealth healthy.”

I’m wondering whether the amendment’s chances might be affected by the splashy news out of New York City last week that the mayor is proposing a ban on the sale of big-sized sodas. That proposal has sparked major controversy, as has the Massachusetts soda-tax proposal. The Herald turned a big thumbs-down on the Massachusetts plan in an editorial titled “Hands off the Snickers.”

Readers, should soda and candy be sales-tax-free? I have to confess my own bias: They have so little nutritional value that in my own supermarket lexicon, I think of them as “not food…”

Two Leading Pediatricians: For Children’s Sake, Tax Soda

At the State House this morning, pediatricians and other health-promoters concerned about obesity officially launched a concerted campaign against sugary drinks and candy. Central to their efforts: a bill to remove the sales tax exemption on soda. Here, two leading Massachusetts pediatricians lay out their arguments.

By Dr. Lynda Young and Dr. Barry Zuckerman

Thirty years ago, a typical pediatrician in Massachusetts might see a single obese child in their office every day or so. Now we see as many as five a day and another four to five who are overweight.

Some of these young patients are already suffering from the health effects of obesity: high blood pressure, heart and liver issues, or Type II diabetes. If these trends are not reversed, many of these children will be destined to live shorter lives than their parents.

‘As pediatricians, we have never seen a medical problem of the breadth and scope of obesity.’

As pediatricians, we have never seen a medical problem of the breadth and scope of obesity. Over the last 15 years alone, obesity rates in Massachusetts have doubled, with one in every three children now either overweight or obese, leaving the state with the 33rd worst childhood obesity rate in the nation. Meanwhile, obesity-related medical costs will add some $1.8 billion a year to the Commonwealth’s already strained health care system.

Preventing and reversing the obesity crisis has become a paramount medical concern for pediatricians across the Commonwealth. As physicians and physician-educators, we see the devastating impact of obesity every day, despite our daily warnings to patients, their families and the public about the importance of taking immediate action to prevent unhealthy weight gain.

One opportunity before us right now is legislation to eliminate the tax exempt status on soft drinks and candy. Nearly fifty years ago, when Massachusetts adopted a sales tax, it decided to exempt the sale of food items. Other essentials of daily life, such as clothing, were exempted as well.

Of course, this was years before the obesity epidemic began to sweep the country. Today, soft drinks can hardly be considered essential food items. To the contrary, overconsumption of sugary beverages has become a major threat to public health, and obesity-related conditions will likely eclipse smoking as the leading preventable cause of death. Continue reading