by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Taxes

Sep 13 2010

Department of Talmudic investigation: Define candy!

Caroline Scott-Thomas of FoodNavigator.com poses a question to which I must confess I had never given a thought: What, exactly, is candy?

Why would anyone care?  The Streamlined Sales Tax Governing Board cares a lot (and so do candy companies).  The Streamlined Board is devoted to helping states figure out how to impose simpler and more uniform taxes.  It is asking for comments on its current definition, which says that candy is:

A preparation of sugar, honey, or other natural or artificial sweeteners in combination with chocolate, fruits, nuts or other ingredients or flavorings in the form of bars, drops, or pieces. ‘Candy’ shall not include any preparation containing flour and shall require no refrigeration.

The point of this definition is to clearly distinguish candy from cookies.  Cookies contain flour.  Candies, by this definition, do not.

Here is where things get deliciously Talmudic.  The Tax Board wants to modify the definition to explain what it means by “flour”:

For purposes of the definition of candy, “flour” does not include a product that can be called “flour” under the Food and Drug Administration’s food labeling standards if the product is not grain based. If only the word “flour” is listed on the product label, it is assumed that the product contains grain based flour. However, if the word “flour” on the label is preceded by a modifier used to describe the product the “flour” was made from and the modifier is not a type of grain, then the product is not considered to contain “flour” for purposes of the definition of candy. For example, flour substitutes or products that are not made from grain but which are finely milled so that they meet the Food and Drug Administration’s definition of “flour,” such as “peanut flour” or “cocoa flour” are not “flour” for purposes of this definition.

Isn’t this fun?  Scott-Thomas points out that under this flour rule, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Three Musketeers are considered candy and taxable, but Kit Kat and Milky Way, which contain flour, would be cookies and exempt.  Apparently, the Tax Board does not view this distinction as arbitrary.

If you think it is a loophole, and that Kit Kat and Milky Way are getting off tax free, or you have other thoughts about how candy tax policies should or should not work, you are welcome to submit comments by September 27.  The Streamlined Tax Board has posted instructions about how to file comments on its website.

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Jul 3 2010

Soda taxes: politics vs. public health

By analogy with cigarettes, taxes on sodas might discourage people—especially young people—from consuming sugary drinks.  This might help with weight issues.

According to a new analysis by USDA economists,

A tax-induced 20-percent price increase on caloric sweetened beverages could cause an average reduction of 37 calories per day, or 3.8 pounds of body weight over a year, for adults and an average of 43 calories per day, or 4.5 pounds over a year, for children. Given these reductions in calorie consumption, results show an estimated decline in adult overweight prevalence (66.9 to 62.4 percent) and obesity prevalence (33.4 to 30.4 percent), as well as the child at-risk-for-overweight prevalence (32.3 to 27.0 percent) and the overweight prevalence (16.6 to 13.7 percent).

Soft drink companies know this all too well.  Hence, intense industry lobbying.  In the case of New York State, the lobbying succeeded.  Soda taxes are history (for now).

New York Times 7-2-10

As the New York Times explains:

Final lobbyist filings are not yet in, but estimates of the amount spent…range from $2.5 million, by Mr. Finnegan’s count, to $5 million, by the beverage industry’s count. The American Beverage Association spent $9.4 million in the first four months of the year to oppose New York’s soda tax, according to a search of public lobbying records by the New York State Healthy Eating and Physical Activity Alliance. Most of the money was spent on advertising, media and strategy.

This is a setback, but probably temporary.  Sooner or later, soda taxes will come.  Bring on the research!

Addition, July 5: Harvard researchers have just published a paper in the American Journal of Public Health showing that raising the price of sodas in a hospital cafeteria does indeed discourage sales.

Mar 7 2010

Tools for promoting soda taxes

I’ve been collecting information about soda taxes.  If you think they are worth a try, as I do, and want to help get the New York bill (the Duane Bill) passed, plenty of background information and tools are available.

Tomorrow, March 8, The New York Academy of Medicine, the New York State Healthy Eating and Physical Activity Alliance, and the New York State Public Health Association invite you to a symposium:

TAKING ACTION AGAINST OBESITY:
A Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Tax for New York State

Monday, March 8 2010 from 2:00 pm to 3:30 pm
Blue Room, 2nd Floor, Capitol Building, Albany, NY

Speakers include NYS Health Commissioner Dr. Richard Daines, New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Tom Farley, and Dr. Kelly Brownell from the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy. The event is free.  RSVP to tsanders@malkinross.com

Here’s more than you ever wanted to know about why these taxes are likely to do some good and are worth passing:

Convinced?  Want to help?

And just for fun, here is testimony from an official of PepsiCola opposing the taxes and a rebuttal from some group (sorry, I don’t know which).

Finally, the Los Angeles Times (February 21) had a terrific graph of the recent sharp increase in lobbying expenditures (in the rebuttal).  Given the mess in Albany, it will be interesting to see how all this goes.  Act now!

Jan 29 2010

Not sure about soda taxes? Read this!

The New York City Health Department has produced a handy guide – a tool kit, actually – to soda tax legislation.    It explains the rationale, reviews the evidence supporting the use of such taxes, provides fact sheets, and answers Frequently Asked Questions.  For the academics among us, it provides loads of reference citations.  Take a look and put it to good use!

Update January 30: FoodNavigator.com did a report on reaction to the soda tax bill, “Fresh New York soda tax plans stir up the obesity debate.”  It’s got a great quote from the American Beverage Association:

What’s particularly disconcerting about this proposal is that the tax on a 12-pack of non-alcoholic beverages, like soft drinks, would be more than 9 times higher than the state tax on a 12-pack of alcoholic beverages, like beer.

This, as you might expect, has stirred up some counter-proposals, the most obvious being to increase the tax on alcoholic beverages.  Now that ought to generate some additional revenue!

While we are on the subject of alcohol, a forthcoming paper by Barry Popkin is said to have some interesting trend data:

Among adults aged 19 and over, SSB [sugar-sweetened beverage] consumption had almost doubled from 64 to 142kcal/day and alcohol consumption had increased from 45 to 115 kcal/day [from 1977-2006].

Popkin’s conclusion: “The consumer shift towards increased levels of SSBs and alcohol, limited amounts of reduced fat milk along with a continued consumption of whole milk, and increase juice intake represent issues to address from a public health perspective.”

Nov 2 2009

Meat arguments: health, climate, taxes

If only meat were just a food and not the flash point for concerns about health, climate change, and tax policy.  But it looms large in all such debates.

According to reports, meat is linked not only with a higher rate of cancer but also with type 2 diabetes.   Does this make logical sense?  It could, especially if meat eaters take in more calories and are fatter than non-meat eaters.

We’ve heard so much lately about how farm animals contribute to environmental problems and climate change, but Nicolette Hahn Niman writes in the New York Times of “the carnivore’s dilemma.”  It’s not the animals themselves that contribute to climate change, it’s the industrial methods of raising them that are the problem.  She ought to know.  She and Bill Niman run the free-range ranch in Bolinas, California highlighted in Time magazine last August.

On the other hand, Princeton professor and ethicist Peter Singer argues in the New York Daily News that meat is so bad for health and the environment that it ought to be taxed.

How to deal with all of this?  Push for more humanely and sustainably raised farm animal production, dont’ eat meat if you choose not to, and if you do eat meat, just don’t eat too much of it.

Update, November 4: I forgot to include Jonathan Safran Foer’s piece in the New York Times magazine on why he is against meat.

Oct 1 2009

The soft drink industry strikes back

Today’s New York Times carries this full-page ad taking on the New York City Health Department’s campaign against sodas.

print_obesity_stupid

Although the ad says it’s paid for by the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF), it doesn’t take much to guess who paid that group for it.  What better way to fight back than to hide behind this particular public relations agency, which specializes in defending purveyors of unhealthful products.

What CCF is about – and which companies pay for its work – are well known (for starters, see previous post).

I’m guessing the Health Department’s campaign must be having an effect if soft drink companies are so worried that they are willing to fund a group that is so consumer unfriendly.

Addendum:  no wonder they are worried.  According to a new report on soda taxation from Center for Science in the Public Interest, President Obama has said the idea is worth considering.

Scan10214

And thanks to Fred Tripp for giving me yet another CCF ad, this one from the September 30 A.M. New York.   All of this must be making soda companies worried enough to sign on with CCF.  Not a good idea.

Update October 2: I’ve just been send a link to Rachel Maddow’s comments on Rick Berman, the head of CCF.  Look for “Meet Rick Berman.”  It gives an overview of CCF accounts.  I’m not sure when it aired.

Sep 17 2009

Soda taxes: the new frontier

If I read the tea leaves correctly, soda taxes are on their way.  Kelly Brownell and Tom Friedan broached the idea earlier this year.  York state tried and failed to implement them.

Since then, as we learn more about the role of sugary drinks as a factor in obesity, public health support for the idea is growing.  Last week, Jim Knickman, President of NYSHealth wrote an op-ed in the New York Post in favor of the taxes.    Now the New England Journal of Medicine – as prestigious a journal as they come – is publishing another article from  Brownell, Frieden, et al on the public health and economic benefits of taxing sugary soft drinks.

And the evidence accumulates daily.  Children and adults who habitually drink sodas are more likely to be obese and have worse diets than those who do not.  The latest study from the California Center for Public Health Advocacy and a policy research group at UCLA makes just this point.

The study found that 41 percent of children (ages 2 – 11), 62 percent of adolescents (ages 12 – 17) and 24 percent of adults drink at least one soda or other sugar-sweetened beverage every day. Regardless of income or ethnicity, adults who drink one or more sodas or other sugar-sweetened beverages every day are 27 percent more likely to be overweight or obese.

The result of all this is what the New York Times is calling in its print headline, “tempest in a soda bottle.”  I’d call it a Category 5 hurricane.

As I love to point out, it did not used to be OK for kids to drink sodas all day long.  Now it is.  Taxes might encourage some changes in these recent practices.  It will be interesting to watch this idea progress.

Later in the day: as for pushback, here is a link to the ad from the “Americans Against Food Taxes.”  Why am I thinking this is an astroturf client of the Center for Consumer Freedom?  Just a wild guess.

Jun 9 2009

The soda tax debate: more of the same

On June 3, the New York Times editorial page endorsed the idea of a tax on sugary sodas, and I especially liked the way the writer placed the issue in context:

Bigger fixes are needed, of course, starting with decent health care. The young need more exercise, healthier lunches and better education on nutrition. All consumers — not just those lucky enough to live near farms or large grocery stores — should be able to buy fresh fruits and vegetables at affordable prices. While we wait, Congress could impose an excise tax on sugary drinks — one of the main culprits in the obesity epidemic.

Yesterday, the Times published three letters in response, a set remarkable for concisely summarizing the same tired, old arguments.

From the American Beverage Association: “Balancing calories consumed with those expended through physical activity is the critical factor in preventing obesity. Therefore, we must continue to educate Americans about the importance of energy balance.”  Yes, but that won’t be enough.  As I have explained in previous posts, overeating calories has a much greater impact on weight gain than physical activity has in preventing it, and plenty of those overeaten calories come from sugary drinks these days.

Another writer, complaining that personal responsibility and parental responsibility have been lost in this discussion, then goes on to propose precisely the non-personal, societal approaches that the editorial was promoting: “Let’s try removing soda machines from our schools, providing healthier school lunches and ensuring that our gym classes are financed.”

Good ideas.  But I still think soda taxes could be an interesting experiment, well worth a try.