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A Not-So-Sweet Tax On Candy

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A Not-So-Sweet Tax On Candy


A Not-So-Sweet Tax On Candy

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Candy is candy, right? Well, maybe not, if you're trying to tax it. That's when the definition gets a bit sticky. Suddenly, a Snickers bar is candy - but a Twix isn't. This is an issue as states like Colorado and Washington move to tax sweets to help balance their budgets. Austin Jenkins, of the Northwest News Network, reports from Olympia, Washington.

AUSTIN JENKINS: Ask a group of kids what is candy, and you'll get as many answers as there are flavors of Jelly Bellys. Take fifth-graders Kailyn Sing(ph), Nicholas Bouchay(ph) and Sebastian Groves(ph), from Maple Lawn Elementary near Tacoma, Washington.

Ms. KAILYN SING (Fifth-grader, Maple Lawn Elementary): Something that's sweet and people like to eat a lot - with chocolate.

Mr. NICHOLAS BOUCHAY (Fifth-grader, Maple Lawn Elementary): I think what defines candy is lots of sugar, and it's not healthy for you.

Mr. SEBASTIAN GROVES (Fifth-grader, Maple Lawn Elementary): Sugar.

JENKINS: Now here's the grown-up definition of candy.

Mr. PATRICK GILLESPIE (Department of Revenue, Washington state): The definition of candy is a preparation of sugar, honey or other natural or artificial sweeteners combined with chocolate, fruits, nuts or other ingredients or flavorings, and formed into bars, drops or pieces.

JENKINS: That's Patrick Gillespie with the Washington state Department of Revenue. His answer might sound a little bureaucratic. That's because it is. Washington state just passed a candy tax, and he gets to decide what is and isn't candy.

OK. So Patrick, we're looking at the Department of Revenue vending machine. And let's test your knowledge. Reese's Cups, taxable, not taxable?

Mr. GILLESPIE: Taxable.

JENKINS: Mike and Ikes?

Mr. GILLESPIE: Taxable.

JENKINS: Kit Kat bars?

Mr. GILLESPIE: They're exempt.

JENKINS: Exempt? How come?

Mr. GILLESPIE: They have flour in them.

JENKINS: Flour. That's the not-so-secret ingredient that determines whether something is candy or not, at least if you're the tax man. If it has flour, it's not candy. No joke. Who came up with the flour test? A group of states working together to simplify - yes, I said simplify - and sync up their sales tax codes.

It took them two years, and they insist the flour lobby had no influence in the matter. But the states' definition of candy leaves a sour taste in the mouth of Susan Smith. She's with the National Confectioners Association, also known as Candy USA.

Ms. SUSAN SMITH (National Confectioners Association): We find that looking at flour as the definition of whether something is a food or not is really quite arbitrary.

JENKINS: So does she have a better definition?

Ms. SMITH: Boy, that's a tough one. It might be the emotional definition that might determine what candy is rather than a specific ingredient or two.

JENKINS: Smith says her industry would be happy to work with policymakers on this. But cash-strapped states aren't waiting. Last year, Illinois adopted the flour definition when it stopped giving a sales tax break to candy. This year, Colorado and Washington state followed suit.

Patrick Gillespie, at Washington's Department of Revenue, is building a database of every candy sold in Washington and whether it's taxable. He's at more than 6,000 and counting.

JENKINS: And you're not going crazy?

Mr. GILLESPIE: No, not yet.

JENKINS: You can just imagine what kids have to say about this. In Washington state, lawmakers have gone home for the year, but most days you can find a school group touring the state Capitol. I found Mrs. Galvin's fifth-graders quietly eating their lunch on the steps of the rotunda. Jeremy Healey views the candy tax as a personal affront.

Mr. JEREMY HEALEY (Fifth-grader, Maple Lawn Elementary): I like candy and if they tax it, I can't have it as much - at all.

JENKINS: What's your favorite kind of candy?

Mr. HEALEY: I'd have to say the Marshmallow Snickers. Those are good.

JENKINS: For the record, taxable. But there's hope for Jeremy. An effort is under way to ask Washington voters to repeal the candy tax this November.

For NPR News, I'm Austin Jenkins in Olympia, Washington.

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