Editorial | Indulgence tax

A law moving through the Washington state Legislature now that would allow the state to tax candy and soda will bring in much-needed funds for state programs. The tax will also help address a major health issue: the growing incidence of obesity and poor nutrition.

Increasing the price of sugary foods through a tax on candy and soda should do two things. First, it stands to influence people to buy and consume less of those items. And secondly, it will no doubt get people to simply talk about the cost of those empty calories on our nation’s health.

Will it work? It sounds like a great idea — making things more expensive will make them less desirable. It sends a message that those who wish to indulge themselves should pay for that privilege. So-called “sin” or “snack taxes” have been instituted elsewhere. Studies have found that increasing the price of products does discourage use. Smoking declined after higher taxes were imposed on cigarettes years ago. Smoking rates fell and money was raised to offset medical costs.

Yet, does such a tax violate our right to choose how we live our lives? Will it just harm those who are poorer or less-educated? Does it absolve us of our own responsibilities for adopting healthy habits? No. Sodas and snacks will still be available. Clearly, the intent is not to do away with them, but instead to make them a treat and not a staple. The hope is that shoppers will consider the real cost of those goods — not only in monetary terms, but of the impact on their health.

Clearly, we are in need of any way to encourage healthy choices in what we consume. Medical experts have warned recently that children now could have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. More than two-thirds of Americans are overweight, and more than one-third are obese. Extreme times require extreme measures. Simply encouraging and hoping for better choices is not working.

Will the tax itself meet expectations? Will consumption actually drop and lessen the tax revenue that lawmakers expect? No doubt the beverage industry will counter with new pricing schemes or ways to somehow make their products more healthy. But as long as fewer empty calories are consumed, it will be a success.

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