BOBBY HARRISON: Soft drink and tobacco tax comparisons are flawed

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – A movement is growing in this country, and in this state, to tax soft drinks.
First it was cigarettes. The argument was that the tax had to be increased on cigarettes as a mechanism to reduce usage of a clearly unhealthy product. After a multi-year fight, that argument finally prevailed in the Mississippi Legislature.
Now the same argument is being used for soft drinks.
Now it’s getting personal.
First thing every morning I go to the refrigerator and pour me a glass of cola – full of sugar and caffeine. I do not want ice. It has to be straight and cold. I appreciate that burning sensation it causes in the back of my throat.
If by some oversight there is not a cola in the fridge, I have been known to hop in my truck and drive to the local convenience store.
I must confess I enjoy that name brand that probably has the largest share of the market, but I am satisfied with most any brand as long as it is not diet and not caffeine free. I insist on fully loaded.
I have close friends associated with that other major soft drink manufacturer – the one that caught Michael Jackson on fire.
At times, they get a little frustrated with my requests for that one particular name brand. But I am also happy with a morning serving of their name brand. It also hits the spot. What they do not understand is that I grew up at a time and in a region of the country where every carbonated drink was referred to as a coke.
At any rate, the point I am making is when legislators start talking about taxing soft drinks, this is an issue that affects me directly. Let me add that I am trying to cut back on my consumption of soft drinks later in the day. But I have no intention of giving up my morning drink and would be willing to pay a lot more in taxes to ensure I get it.
But the fact remains that Mississippi is the fattest, most obese state in the fattest nation in the world.
A lot of research exists that indicates that soft drink consumption contributes a good bit to our obesity, pointed out Judith Phillips of the Mississippi State Stennis Institute during a presentation in Jackson Monday .
It is also a fact that a lot of costly health risks are associated with obesity – heart problems, diabetes and others.
But soft drinks are a little different than cigarettes. Soft drink consumption in moderation does provide a certain amount of benefit. Soft drinks can ease thirst and hunger.
Cigarettes, used just as directed, will kill a person and, other than satisfying an acquired addiction, provide no benefits.
One of the arguments against increasing the cigarette tax and placing an additional tax on soft drinks is that it would unfairly impact poor people. It is true a higher percentage of lower income people smoke. And yes,it is true that the government is taxing an addiction, since that is what cigarette usage ultimately is.
What policymakers have to decide is whether a tax increase on cigarettes is warranted as a device to help reduce smoking and to help pay for the higher health care costs that smoking generally entails.
Of course, my wife might say I have an addiction to soft drinks. I might say she is right.
Plus, it is true that a tax on soft drinks would be regressive. Any sales tax or excise tax where everyone – regardless of income – pays the same tax is regressive by its very nature.
And Mississippi already has a regressive tax structure, with a 7 percent sales tax, including on groceries. It has been well documented that Mississippi has the highest state-imposed state tax on groceries in the nation.
Let’s get this straight: We are the fattest, poorest state in the nation and we have the highest state-imposed tax on food. Since healthy food is normally more expensive, we essentially have policies in place promoting people to be unhealthy.
The tax on soft drinks is a non-starter this legislative session. It took proponents of the cigarette tax several years to finally succeed in the legislative process.
Whether the soft drink tax proponents will ultimately have the same success as the cigarette tax advocates remains to be seen. The issues are similar, but some significant differences exist.
At one point, then-Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck proposed increasing the cigarette tax and using that revenue to offset a reduction in the tax on groceries.
That measure had some popular support, but was ultimately blocked by Gov. Haley Barbour.
As already stated, researchers say healthy food is more expensive. A gallon of orange juice costs more than a gallon of soft drink.
One alternative for the soft drink tax proponents would be to advocate a tax offset similar to what Tuck proposed. Increase the tax on soft drinks and offset that by decreasing the tax on food.
That way people who paid more for a soft drink would be able to save money on other groceries.
It has some symmetry.
But I will still be drinking my morning cola.
Bobby Harrison is Capitol Bureau chief in Jackson for the Daily Journal. Contact him at bobby.harrison@djournal.com or (601) 353-3119.