Photo courtesy Gem at flickr.com
The New York Times reports that Gov. Paterson's administration's proposal to charge an 18 percent sales tax on sugary sodas and juice drinks (state officials estimate it would raise more than $400 million for health programs and help curb obesity) has touched off a vigorous debate. Should Minnesota consider adopting a soda sin tax as well?
As per the Times article, the 18 percent sales tax (on top of regular sales taxes) would apply to sugary sodas and fruit drinks containing less than 70 percent natural fruit juice, and the tax would not apply to bottled water, diet sodas, coffee, tea or milk.
While it could generate considerable revenue for the struggling state, officials pitched the tax primarily as a health measure, noting that 1 out of every 4 New Yorkers is obese and that soft drinks have been linked to childhood obesity and diabetes in women.
Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University called the measure, "an interesting experiment and one that's worth trying," and noted that cigarette taxes demonstrably reduced smoking rates (I've seen the numbers quoted from the 2005 book "Prescription for a Healthy Nation" that a 10 percent price increase on cigarettes reduced sales by about 3 percent over all, and 7 percent among teenagers).
Skeptics feel that education and lifestyle changes are more effective at changing long-term behaviors related to food choices and, of course, the beverage association feels like it's been singled out and questions why other junk food items aren't in the mix. The Times notes there is little precedent for the tax Gov. Paterson has proposed: Maine, apparently adopted new taxes on soda and beer, but voters overturned the idea at the ballot box.
Here in Minnesota, food and food ingredients are exempt from sales tax--except for the following edible items: candy, soft drinks, food sold through vending machines, prepared foods, alcoholic beverages, and dietary supplements. This tax structure seems to set a bit of a precedent for an obesity tax, though drawing boundaries would be a nightmare. So far as I can tell, cartons of ice cream are currently exempt from sales tax while individual servings aren't, so careful calorie counters who indulge a cone of sorbet at the local scoop shop are taxed for their "sins" while those who down an entire pint of full-fat Ben & Jerry's aren't.