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Yvonne Abraham

Sweet deal for soda

He’s the Felix Unger of Beacon Hill.

Like the neat-freak half of The Odd Couple, House Speaker Robert DeLeo has a severe allergy. One whiff of anything that could be construed as a tax increase — no matter how sensible or popular the measure — and he starts honking.

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The latest source of his hypochondria? A measure to end the tax exemption for soda.

There’s no good reason for soda to be sales-tax free. It’s not an essential item, like milk or clothing. Whether we drink it or not, soda is bad for us: Sugary drinks are one of the biggest single sources of calories in American diets, fueling the obesity growing at horrendous rates across the country, an epidemic that costs the health system a whopping $147 billion a year. In Massachusetts, the obesity rate rose from 16.7 percent in 2000 to 23.6 percent in 2010, the latest year for which state figures are available. It contributes about $2 billion a year to our health care costs — costs we all bear.

And yet our state is one of only 12 in the country that essentially subsidize soda, forgoing sales taxes to make it cheaper than it should be — and thus easier to guzzle in huge quantities. Removing the exemption would raise at least $50 million a year for prevention and wellness programs in this state. It would also make soda a slightly less appealing buy, a good thing for both wallets and waistlines.

Before people start baying “nanny state!” this isn’t New York mayor Michael Bloomberg outlawing Big Gulps: Ending the exemption on soda merely makes state tax policy, which currently favors an unhealthy product, neutral.

That makes plenty of sense to me. And I’m not the only one. A poll commissioned last year by The Boston Foundation found that more than two-thirds of Massachusetts voters support ending the exemption and devoting the funds raised to health programs. Corporate types have joined the cause, including the Alliance for Business Leadership, a group of local executives.

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“We have a great interest in this,” says Alliance member Philip Edmundson, CEO of insurance broker William Gallagher Associates. “We’re paying a lot more for our health care, and our employees are, too.”

And yet, when Representative Kay Khan and other supporters attempted to end the soda exemption this week, the Speaker sneezed. Khan and her cosponsors attached the measure to the health cost containment bill passed on Tuesday night, a laudable piece of legislation that aims to rein in runaway health costs. Khan’s amendment, and another which would have expanded the excise tax on cigarettes to other tobacco products, were both consistent with the aims of the legislation, and yet were ruled out of order.

The soda measure never really had a chance. It’s an election year, and DeLeo wants to protect Democratic incumbents. As he has demonstrated time and again (poor Bottle Bill!) he believes voters will toss out incumbents if they dare speak the dreaded T-word.

It’s true we’re in a period of virulent anti-tax hysteria in this country — including in Massachusetts. “Americans want, at every level of government, a helluva lot more services than they’re willing to pay for,” says David Brunori, editor at the non-partisan, Virginia-based Tax Analysts.

But in this case, most people agree the exemption should go. So what gives? Are the voters not telling pollsters the truth, or is DeLeo underestimating them? Brunori says it’s the latter, that jumpy politicians “are not listening very well.”

Look, DeLeo is a decent guy, and he has done a lot of good things as Speaker. And there’s no doubt that some legislators, including Senate President Therese Murray, are vulnerable this year, to Republicans who would seize any opportunity to call them tax-happy.

But the voters are smarter than DeLeo and others give them credit for. They understand that when the Speaker snuffs out a sensible measure like this one, we all have good reason to feel a little sick.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com

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