Junk Food Tax? Boston Mayoral Candidate John Barros Says Yes

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2021/08/11/junk-food-tax-boston-mayoral-candidate-john-barros-says-yes/

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts exempts food from sales tax.

While prepared meals in restaurants have a 6.25 percent meals tax and many communities tack on an additional 0.75 percent local option tax, shoppers don’t pay sales tax on the food they buy during a typical trip to the grocery store in Massachusetts.

However, one Boston mayoral candidate says he’d like that to change in some cases — and another said she is open to the idea.

When asked about supporting a junk food tax — in this case, a 6.25 percent sales tax on foods deemed unhealthy by the state government — John Barros told Boston.com this week that he supports it. The question asked about the tax in the context of the proceeds going to supporting neighborhood farms, fitness and mental health facilities, and outdoor playgrounds.

Here is what Barros, who served as the chief of economic development for the city of Boston from 2014 until earlier this year, replied:


So the answer is yes, I do support a tax. But it just can’t be a tax. Why? Because I know how difficult it is to get my kids not to have soda, dammit. I try hard [laughs]. You should see the snacks, right? I know the issues around it, but that’s cheap food for a lot of people. It’s food that they can buy, that they can afford for their kid. And so we’re taxing the poor, because that’s who buys it.

If there’s going to be a tax, then we’ve got to figure out who’s paying that tax, and we know who’s paying that tax actually. We’ve got to figure out what we’re doing to help as we get rid of the options in schools, as we get rid of the options in camps, as we get rid of the options in different places, and then increase healthy food options.


Another candidate in the race, Boston city councilor Andrea Campbell, stopped short of committing to taxing junk food. However, she said the idea interests her.

Here is what she told Boston.com about it:


I would consider it. And I think it’s, again, a conversation that we would take and engage with every resident to take part in.

I already know that in certain parts of the city, it’s been a topic of discussion … I’m going blank on the name (an aide later confirmed Campbell was referring to the Mattapan Food & Fitness Coalition‘s Neighborhood Health Champions) … but the health champions who are working in partnership with our local bodegas and convenience stores to get them to place the unhealthy food in the back, to put the healthier food in the front, to work on changing prices — I think you can actually get a lot done even before pushing for some of the taxes.


Currently, the city of Boston lacks the authority to implement a junk food tax at the local level. For a city to have the power to implement a new tax, it would need a Home Rule Petition enacted by the Massachusetts Legislature. Alternatively, city officials could advocate for the passage of a statewide junk food tax by the legislature.

Back in 2013, then-Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick supported ending the state’s sales tax exemption on candy and soda, as WBUR points out. However, it was not a top priority for the state legislature, and the current governor, Charlie Baker, hasn’t addressed the topic.

A post on the web site of the left-leaning Tax Policy Center criticizes junk food taxes as “regressive,” arguing that “it would disproportionately affect low-income families who consume a greater share of those goods” — but also cites studies suggesting that price-sensitive poor people might avoid the tax by buying less junk food. The Tax Policy Center also argues that a junk food tax could improve health outcomes if the revenue raised went toward expanding access to health insurance.

One catch the Tax Policy Center article notes:  Defining junk food can be tricky:  “Wherever policymakers draw the line, food manufacturers will try to make their product appear to be on the right side of it.”


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