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Mass. Weighs Governor’s Plan To Tax Candy And Soda

Are candy and soda food?

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 proposing that the legislature tax every bag of M&M’s and bottle of Pepsi bought in the state.

“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.”

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. “People should have a certain amount of discretion here and public education efforts would be much more effective than just taxing people if they’re buying a Diet Coke.”

Supporters of the tax say calling soda and candy food means the state is, in a small way, subsidizing an unhealthy option.

“Sugar in particular has led to obesity, which leads to diabetes, which can also lead or does lead in fact to heart disease and stroke,” says Jack Manning, the chairman and CEO at Boston Capital and one of a growing number of employers who support taxing candy and soda.

Manning says sick employees aren’t as happy or as productive as healthy workers and they boost the cost of everyone’s health insurance. “So from all points of view, businesses are better off if there is a tax because we want our employees to be healthy.”

The same proposal from Patrick died in the legislature last session and it’s not clear if the prospects are any better now.

“The advocates have been loud and vocal on taking the issue up and trying to put it at the forefront of our policy here,” says Jeffrey Sanchez, House chair of the Joint Committee on Public Health. “The challenge is all the other revenue proposals that are before us as well.”

He was referring to Patrick’s proposal to raise the income tax and adjust other taxes.

The idea of charging more for foods that aren’t healthy is getting a lot of attention around the country these days. Public health leaders say the connection between higher cigarette taxes and lower rates of smoking makes the case.

This story is part of a collaboration that includes WBUR, NPR and Kaiser Health News.