Out of Control Policy Blog

Once Again, Voters Kill Unfair Sin Taxes on Food

In a result long foreshadowed by poll numbers but no less sweet for it, voters in the state of Washington resoundingly passed Initiative 1107, striking down sales taxes on candy, soda and bottled water that had been implemented back in April. Anthony Randazzo and I detailed the myriad downsides of food taxes here which, besides disproportionately hurting poorer consumers, unfairly target a minority of taxpayers, promote further nanny state interference in personal choice, and represent politician's unwillingness to reduce unsustainable levels of spending.

Besides underlining the unpopularity of food taxes, which have been repeatedly ended by voters in other states over the last 20 years, 1107's success should remind us that "fat taxes" are a paternalistic and unfair way to raise money for government.  Revenue-hungry politicians are often able to push these measures by claiming they limit consumption of calorie-rich foods, trim people's waistlines, and thus mitigate the cost to society of obesity-related illness. But studies have shown that the relatively small levies like Washington's have no impact on obesity rates. In that context, these small fat taxes have no greater social purpose; they're just a means to offload some of the cost of government onto snack and soda junkies.

Nor would large, behavior-changing taxes on food be any better. A 2009 study found that even when soda taxes can drive consumers away from their sweet, syrupy treat, soft drinks accounted for only 7 percent of daily energy intake among adults. Though this does make soda the single highest contributor to the calories the average American consumes, it underlines the point that obesity is driven by multiple factors, both dietary and otherwise - it can't be cured by the punitive taxation of certain types of food.

Washington, like other states in fiscal trouble, will have to make more hard budgetary choices as policymakers plan for the coming fiscal year. Politicians faced with revenue shortfalls sometimes find "temporary taxes" on "unnecessary" or "unhealthy" products like soda, candy and snacks an easy sell. Unfortunately, such taxes usually end up hurting the poor, harming local businesses, and exerting little influence on the eating habits of consumers. Moreover, they have a tendency to stick around; Maine's "temporary" 1991 snack took until 2000 to repeal. Despite their lofty goals, most sin taxes, including those on food, end up simply dumping their burden on a politically unpopular minority and promoting more state spending without serving any justifiable social purpose.

For a more musical take on the problem of sin taxes, check out this video by comedian and budding economist Remy.

David Godow is Research Assistant


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