Let Them Eat Cake

Let Them Eat Cake

By Rosemarie Jackowski

Marie Antoinette lives. She is alive and well in Vermont. The Vermont House has voted to place a sales tax on dietary supplements and vitamins. The March 25, 2010 vote came in at 92 to 49.

Ironically, at the same time, in Washington politicians were promising ‘preventive care’. Seems to be a failure to communicate?

In recent years, the medical community has finally, in a better- late- than- never move, recommended increased dosages of vitamin D. For decades anyone could track the higher rates of MS, breast cancer, colon cancer, osteoporosis, and other diseases in areas of the northern US where there is less exposure to sunlight. There are some fascinating theories that explain the disease-resistance of the Inuit people who inhabit the far northern regions of the globe. One theory states that what they lack in sun exposure they make up with ample doses of vitamin D in their diet which consists mainly of fatty fish. The value of sun exposure and the resultant vitamin D have been well documented. Now, will vitamin D be taxed in Vermont? Should sitting in the sun also be taxed?Vitamin D is one of the least expensive supplements. It is widely available without a prescription. High doses of vitamin D are available by prescription. Will they be taxed? On the other hand CoQ 10 is a bit more costly. It is also known to have important health benefits. Paying a tax on it could prove to be a hardship for many. CoQ 10 has been one of the leading heart meds used in Japan since 1974. It is sometimes an effective treatment for AMD, Alzheimer’s, angina, some cancers, heart failure, low sperm count, Parkinson’s, AIDS, tinnitus, psychiatric disorders, and many other illnesses. CoQ 10 is not a magic bullet, but it is an important supplement. It should be available tax-free for those who chose to take it.

What about fish oil capsules, and for vegans flaxseed oil capsules? Are they a supplement, or are they a food? Will they be taxed? If flaxseed oil is taxed, should there be a tax on olive oil. Will the criteria be, tax it if it is in a capsule – but leave it untaxed if it is floating free in a bottle? Cod liver oil is available in capsule form and is also available floating free in bottle form. Here we have a conundrum.

What about red wine supplements? Will taxing Resveratrol encourage people to drink Cabernet Sauvignon instead of taking a pill? That could be fun, but will each household then be required to have a designated driver? 

And what about green tea tablets? If in pill form, tax it. If in tiny bags the tea would be tax-free. Seems a bit arbitrary.

Here’s another one – turmeric. If purchased from the spice isle of the grocery store, it would be tax-free. If purchased from the supplement isle, it would be taxed.

Pre-natal vitamins, especially the B vitamins, are credited with decreasing the risk of neural tube birth defects. Should pre-natal vitamins be taxed?

For a long time the bagel tax has been controversial. Buy one bagel and it is taxed. Buy a dozen bagels and they are tax-free. Is it permissible to buy a dozen – eat one – and then return eleven to avoid the tax?

In other areas, some are calling for a tax on sugary drinks. That could gum up an already overly complicated tax code. Few people can decipher the tax regs on food now. Some food is taxed, or not taxed, depending on the temperature of the food. Tax it if it is hot – no tax if it is cold. This might have made sense in Montpelier, but it victimizes poor families who lack cooking facilities. Not every one has a working stove. If a shopper purchases hot food in a grocery store, he pays the hot-food tax. If, when he gets home, the food has cooled should the tax be refunded? Seems that that would be the fair thing to do.

In the larger scheme of things, all of this might seem trivial.  There is increasing homelessness, hunger, war, and a continuing health care crisis, but some things are a matter of principle.  A public policy that places a tax on vitamins cannot be morally justified – especially in a state where there is already a crisis in health care.  In the southern part of Vermont many have no access to a doctor or dentist. In Bennington, Vermont there is a health care clinic. It is staffed by benevolent volunteers. The problem is that it is open only three hours per week and it does not offer dental or vision care. Dental care would go a long way in assuring health. It should be at the top of the list for preventive care. There is not much recognition of that fact in Washington or in Montpelier.

The federal tax code is not any better than most state codes.  Some needed improvements are obvious.  Simplify the code. Eliminate most deductions.  Make it fair.  A progressive tax that starts at 1 % on incomes above $88,000 would be an improvement.  The tax could progressively increase to 100% on incomes above $1,000,000.   Most important – eliminate the cap on the Social Security tax and include all income, earned and unearned.  Make it a progressive tax that is fair to low wage workers.

The worse thing about a tax on vitamins might not be the adverse health effect that will result. The worse thing is that this is a regressive tax – hurting those who can least afford it. Instead of taxing vitamins, vitamins should be given free to all who could benefit from them. This could be paid for by placing a progressive tax on all incomes – earned and unearned – above a certain amount. Maybe $88,000 would be a good place to start the discussion. Seems that that would be the neighborly thing to do. Pay for your neighbor’s vitamins if your income is above $88,000.

Is Marie Antoinette in Vermont? Maybe not, but I can’t wait for Stephen Colbert to do a report on the Vermont tax code – or is Stephen the consultant who has written the tax code?

Rosemarie Jackowski is an advocacy journalist living in Vermont. dissent@sover.net

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