Talk about “the Public Good” may sound just as naive as hoping for big cash to start flowing magically into the state treasury this year. But the Governor’s ‘Public Good’ inspired idea for new taxes on tobacco, candy, gum and carbonated beverages is gaining ground as an alternative to --- or as a supplement to a temporary sales tax increase. State Rep. Eileen Cody, House Health Committee Chair, included it in HB 3204 introduced yesterday.
The poor pay more under either a sales tax or a ‘sin’ tax, of course, and that is not good. But a sales tax hike hits all ‘non-essential’ spending, spreading the financial pain a bit more widely than a big hike on tobacco, candy, gum and pop.
On the other hand, taxing the heck out of these ‘anti-foods’, just as we tax alcohol and tobacco, may cut consumption, just as it has with those vices. So a new “tobacco and sugar” tax package might hurt the poor on one hand, but it might also have a big plus a sales tax doesn’t have. If policy makers also target some of the new money toward promoting healthier food choices among the poor, this ‘tobacco and sugar’ tax idea could start looking pretty ‘public interest sweet’: Better diets, more state revenue and more public health effort against the leading causes of preventable death.
The political calculus is another matter. The public may already favor sugar taxes, especially if some of the money helps make healthier dietary and physical activity choices easier. But the corporate interests who sell sugar laden products --- and who also heavily sweeten both political parties’ campaign coffers ---- are already less than amused. Have you seen their ads? A beleaguered mother lugging a veggie laden grocery bag through her front door complains that in these tough times she simply cannot cope with taxes on ‘fruit juices and soda’. She begs us to tell law makers to give her a break.
We are left wishing these companies would only give us one. Sugar sweetened beverages are not food under the law in Washington or in many other states. They haven’t been for some time, because they have little or no nutritional value.