Experts sour on Gov. Patrick’s plan to tax sugary snacks

Joe Markman

Sins have been hot topics since the days of Adam and Eve. And in recent years, the government has made people pay more for some “sins” – like smoking cigarettes – to discourage them.

That is one rationale, along with raising revenues, behind a push in Massachusetts to tax candy, snacks, soda and other sweet drinks.

But the problem is that using taxes to curb unhealthy behaviors may not work.

This assertion, from economic and health experts, comes as legislators weigh Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposed sales tax increase on candy, sugar and alcohol. House lawmakers have ruled them out as a midyear option for closing the budget gap, but they are still on the table for the fiscal year starting July 1. About $25 million could be raised by removing the 5 percent sales tax exemption on candy, soda and alcohol.

Changing habits – especially cutting down on sweet drinks and food – via higher taxes is hard to do and harder to measure, experts say. There hasn’t been much work to measure the health benefits of taxing sugary products, said Frank J. Chaloupka, director of the University of Illinois’ health policy center. Some say people won’t snack less, even if they have to pay a little more.

“I honestly don’t think that people will buy less for a nickel on a dollar,” said Michael J. Widmer, head of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a nonprofit research group.

Boston University law professor Alan Feld, an expert on tax policy, said he believes the governor will find it difficult to both generate the expected revenue and discourage unhealthy behaviors.

“The purposes are essentially inconsistent,” Feld said. “If you want to raise revenue you have to keep the tax level so that people will keep consuming. To discourage behavior you need a higher tax. It’s a Catch-22.”

Higher “sin taxes” have been shown to curb alcohol use, according to a recent University of Florida study. Raising the price of alcohol 25 percent leads to an 11 percent decrease in consumption and an 80 percent rise in tax revenue, the study found.

Massachusetts Public Health Commissioner John Auerbach said that with every increase in the cigarette tax – which went up $1, to $2.51, last July – smoking decreases.

A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows higher cigarette taxes reduces smoking by deterring young people from starting, stops adults because of the extra price, and reduces consumption among continuing smokers.

Still, Auerbach admits it is more difficult to measure the health effects of raising taxes on sugary foods and drinks.

“Soda and candy are contributing factors of obesity, but there are so many other things to consider,” he said. “It’s more complicated than with tobacco.”

Chaloupka agreed that the benefits of cigarette taxes are more straightforward than with with sugary products. When it comes to soda and candy, he said, people could still buy other sugary foods that aren’t taxed, such as baked goods and fruit juice.

“Cigarettes are more black and white. There’s nothing else to switch to with anywhere near the same public health impact,” Chaloupka said.

Republican lawmakers oppose any new taxes, saying residents and small businesses should not carry the burden of the state's fiscal crisis.

“It’s schizophrenic public policy, relying on cigarette money to fund healthcare,” said Sen. Robert Hedlund, R-Weymouth.

Pete Sepp, a spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union, a conservative nonprofit group, called “sin taxes” counterproductive. He said state officials should either raise revenue or discourage “bad” behaviors – and not try to do both at once.

“Politicians still believe that dividing and conquering taxpayers is an easier strategy than raising general sales or income taxes,” Sepp said. “That argument is wearing thin.”

The Patriot Ledger

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