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MNB had a piece yesterday about the consideration of “sin taxes” that would assess taxes on the sales of products such as sugared soft drinks and foods that don't meet certain nutritional values.

I commented:

The more I read this story, the more I got queasy about it. There’s just a social engineering aspect to it that is a littler unappetizing…I’d love to see people eating healthier food, but taxing them into submission doesn’t strike me as the best approach.

I’m with Jimmy Buffett on this one – a little sin is good for the soul. (Besides, haven't we sort of devalued the nature of sin when we start equating it with sugared soft drinks?)

I figured this might get some response…

MNB user Brad Morris wrote:

As you might imagine, I am biased against the new "Sin" and "Fat" Taxes being proposed as regressive and more than a little silly. That said I had never even thought about the nightmare it would be to administer them on the part of retailers…

What strikes me most about this whole process is that doesn't even seem likely to actually have any impact on shopping behaviors for the "sinful" products in question. If the price at the shelf is the same between a "sinful" product and its "healthy" competitor do we really think that the shopper is going to think to themselves "Gosh, this has sugar/fat in it, and I know I may be paying a higher sales tax rate so I better switch to something healthier". If the Coca-Cola Classic is the same price at shelf as the Diet Coke, it is unlikely that the shopper is going to be any more likely to buy either product than they were before the tax change went into effect. Shoppers already know the differences between the two products as it relates to their choice to have calories from sweeteners or not. Likewise, does it make sense that one Hershey Bar would be considered "sinful" and the other not even though they have a similar nutritional make ups? Why does having a touch of flour make one bar better than the other?

This is all very different from cigarettes where generally speaking the state/federal taxes are imposed beforehand and are visible as a part of the regular retail price. The shopper sees the tax and feels the pain. When a shopper pays $5 for a pack of cigarettes they know that a large part of the cost is in the tax.

Net-net, this is just an opportunity to institute a higher sales taxes to fill budget holes while claiming it is "for the good of the children". I get the idea that taxes are the price we pay to live in a civilized society. Be real. Call it what it is. It is new taxation. It is politics. It is rationalization. Do not insult our intelligence by calling it good public health policy.

MNB user Jan Matsuno wrote:

Forget about taxing junk food, just pay subsidies to the fruit and vegetable growers (as we do for corn)!

Another MNB user wrote:

Why are you queasy about government getting involved in manipulating people with “sin taxes”? If I remember correctly, you have zero problem taxing tobacco which is certainly selective of you. People can quit “junk” food if they choose just like cigarettes. The Soda pop tax would apply only to those drinking soda pop, a candy tax the same.

There are always reasons not to do things that are compelling. Everything must be weighed and each argument should be looked at. In my opinion if the money collected would be applied to health care and improving health then wouldn’t it make sense to tax the items that were causing the problem and thereby could reduce their effect, even if it is a small reduction? We tax gasoline to pay for roads. We tax telephones to pay for those who cannot afford the service in rural areas. As stated previously, anyone not wishing to pay the tax on food that is killing them and reducing their quality of life can certainly quit buying those things.. When liquor, wine and beer were taxed no one expected everyone to quit drinking and they obviously didn’t. Soda pop and Twinkies are not going to go away just because they get taxed. One of the proposals being floated was to tax all corn syrup products which went nowhere. The sin tax on sugary products will most likely go the same way since Congress and state legislatures continue to be manipulated by lobby money and we can see where and why that money is being spent. Taxation will never end if we want a civil society, it just moves around from place to place.

You’re right. I am selective. But isn’t that just the same as making choices…which we do every day?

Taxation on tobacco is different. It is a product deliberately formulated to addict and that eventually kills. No comparison, in my view.

MNB user Al Kober wrote:

I could not agree more with you that we have devalued “sin” to the point where just a little has become OK. Isn’t that what has been done, devalued the nature of sin, when we say that a little sin is good for the soul?

No sin, of any amount, is good for the soul. God hates sin, even a little. So if God hate it, even a little, so do I.

Like saying just a little arsenic is good for the body. The problem is sin doesn’t stop at just a little. Just a little can lead to just a lot.

And finally, MNB user Gregory A. Ten Eyck wrote:

“A little sin is good for the soul?” Is that really what Jimmy Buffet sings? That just reminds me of why I actually got up and left in protest in the middle of one of his concerts. He sings catchy songs, but I’d had enough of his liberal politicking and anti-Christian rants from the stage. He was offensive to me.

On the subject of “sin tax,” I agree that equating soda pop to sin is trivializing sin. Just as believing that sin, which condemns our soul, can be somehow “good” for it.

I double checked, just to be sure, and confirmed that indeed, that is a line from “Grapefruit Juicy Fruit.”

I am, however, a little surprised by the specific reaction…since Buffett always has struck me as being one of the least political singers out there (unless you count his thinking that politics in general is absurdist, which is hard to argue with). I certainly don't get the anti-Christian reference …

The line from the song is a little metaphorical, a little satirical, a little poetical, and mostly, I think, designed to be a little amusing and ideally absorbed with a sip of Margarita.
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