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When is a Milky Way not candy?

The 'sin tax' defines candy as a sweet without flour. Except some candy contains flour. It's still candy, isn't it?

By Teresa Mears May 25, 2010 1:59PM

Starting June 1, you'll have to pay sales tax if you buy candy or gum in Washington state. Local taxes vary, but in Seattle, for example, that's 9.5 cents more on a $1 candy bar.


Unless you buy a Kit Kat, Milky Way or Twizzlers.


Those aren't candy, according to the state's definition. Because the state and city don't tax food, those sweets are tax-free.

That doesn't mean they're better for you. It's just that those non-candy candies contain flour. And, by the state's definition, an item that contains flour isn't candy, even if it's candy.


We may not know how to define candy, but we know it when we see it. Break me off another piece of that tax-free Kit Kat bar.


When it comes to candy, logic has never ruled, says Samira Kawash, the "Candy Professor," who is writing a book about the cultural history of candy in America. In a recent interview with Salon, and also in a post on her Candy Professor blog, she revealed some fascinating facts about America's relationship with candy.


So, what is candy, Salon asked her?

There isn't any substance that's purely candy. "Candy" is really more a feeling about the product, and in fact, it's a distinction that runs along moral lines. Candy is the essential substance of pleasure, but at the same time it is always tainted with the association of sin.

Ah, a "sin tax." Of course. Washington and other states have turned to new and increased  sin taxes during these lean economic times. Washington also recently raised the tax on beer and added taxes on soda and bottled water. We're guessing the bottled water is an environmental sin.

Washington isn't the only state where candy isn't necessarily candy, at least when it comes to taxation. In the last year, Colorado and Illinois have levied additional sales tax on candy, using essentially the same definition applied by the Washington State Department of Revenue:

"Candy" means a preparation of sugar, honey or other natural or artificial sweeteners in combination with chocolate, fruits, nuts or other ingredients or flavorings in the form of bars, drops or pieces. Candy does not include any preparation containing flour. Candy does not require refrigeration.

By flour, they mean flour made from a grain, such as wheat flour, rice flour and corn flour. If the item is made from peanut flour, it's candy.


Chocolate chips and other baking ingredients are deemed candy and subject to sales tax, but unsweetened baking chocolate is not.


Cookies and cake may have the same nutritional benefits (or lack thereof) as candy, but they don't have the same whiff of sin attached, Kawash, a professor emerita at Rutgers University, told Salon.

Of course there is the notion of the wholesomeness of cookies and pies and cakes, and the association of baked goods with the home. I think one of the reasons that candy was historically viewed with so much suspicion is that it was one of the first processed products produced on a commercial scale.

She added, "There's not really that much of a difference between white flour and white sugar. But the baking industry and the agriculture interests were much more successful at associating flour with wholesomeness and nutrition."


If they can make Milky Ways with flour, surely they can find a way to add a little flour to a Reese's peanut butter cup. And they probably will.

Until then, Washington has classified about 3,500 specific products as taxable or exempt, matching them with UPC product codes. You won't have to fear an argument at the checkout counter over whether a Nestle's Crunch bar is or isn't candy. (It isn't.)


If you're wondering who came up with this definition of candy, you can thank the Streamlined Sales Tax Governing Board, an organization with a goal of making sales-tax rules more uniform nationwide, The Chicago Tribune reported last year, when Illinois enacted its candy tax.


"It finally came to us throwing up our hands and saying, 'What in the world can we use as a definition that would be relatively straightforward and easy for a retailer to discern?'" Scott Peterson, executive director of the group, told the Tribune.


Despite the group's efforts, the 50 states have anything but a uniform and straightforward approach to taxing food (we're not even going to get into federal taxes or subsidies on ingredients).


In Wyoming, for example, if you buy your wedding cake from a grocery store or bakery, there is no sales tax, Kay Bell notes at Don't Mess With Taxes. Unless plates, forks or serving utensils come with it  -- then it's taxable.


Cupcakes, anyone?


How do you feel about sin taxes on certain categories of food and drink? Are there products you think should be taxed more heavily than others? Would that extra 9.5 cents affect your choice of candy bar?


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