If you’re like me, when you leave a store, you glance at your receipt to make sure the prices scanned correctly.

But I generally don’t keep as close an eye on the sales tax amount. In general, we know that food isn’t taxable and other goods are taxable.

Right?

Not so fast.

Our state’s sales tax laws are not so black and white.

In fact, you either need a lot of time on your hands to read through — and understand — the laws, or you need to trust that the retailer is complying.

In general, food is not subject to tax and is considered food “if a substance, whether in liquid, concentrated, solid, frozen, dried, dehydrated forms is consumed by humans for nutritional value or taste,” according to the state law.

But there are still lots of variations. Here are some examples (and I have some more examples in an accompanying chart):

•?Chewing gum is considered food and not subject to tax ... but coffee with artificial sweeteners is not food and is taxed.

So if you take your coffee black or with a milk product, it’s considered food and not taxable. However, if you buy a coffee drink but don’t take any milk in it and get caramel syrup added, it’s not considered food and will be taxed.

• Plain bottled water is food and not taxed. But if any natural or artificial sweeteners are added, it’s considered a “soft drink” and not food and therefore taxed.

•?A “soft drink” is not classified by whether the beverage is carbonated. Any sweetened nonalcoholic beverage, whether sweetened naturally or artificially, is a soft drink unless it contains milk products or a milk substitute or it contains more than 50 percent of fruit or vegetable juice.

•?Generally, ice is food and not taxable. However, ice that is sold for cooling purposes is not food and is taxable. But according to the state, “for administrative purposes, ice sold by grocery, convenience, and similar stores is presumed to be food and no tax should be charged.”

•?Gatorade or other energy drinks sold in the bottle ready to drink are not food and subject to tax. But if you buy it in powdered form to mix into water, its considered food and not taxed (same with Kool-Aid). To make it even more confusing, if it’s a sweetened liquid drink concentrate, it’s nonfood and taxed.

Even when you move outside of grocery/food items, the sales tax laws still aren’t exactly simple.

My research for this column started after reader Jim Cavanaugh of New Franklin sent wrote asking why some purchases of sale items at a local Ace Hardware were taxed strangely.

Cavanaugh normally doesn’t look that closely at the sales tax on his receipts either, but when he went into the Hoffman’s Ace Hardware in the Portage Lakes area to buy a bottle of Roundup and trash bags, he said he was surprised at the $2.02 charged in sales tax on his $23 purchase.

According to the sales ad, the Roundup was normally $23.99 and was $16.99 with an Ace Rewards (loyalty) card. The ad said it was a savings of $7. The Ace trash bags were normally $7.99 and were $3.99 with the rewards card. In small print, it does say that sales tax is charged on the sale price before the application of the card savings.

Cavanaugh didn’t see that small print before his purchase, but still thought something was wrong since he was charged sales tax on the full prices.

Upon closer look at his receipt, I noticed that it was even more confusing. He was charged tax for the Roundup at $21.99 and $7.99 for the trash bags.

According to state law, if a store offers a sale price, the sales tax collected is reduced by the savings. But the key is whether the reduced price is made up solely of a reduction by the retailer or if a third-party, such as a manufacturer or vendor, will to reimburse the store for that savings.

If a third-party is paying back the retailer, the consumer has to pay sales tax on the price before the reimbursement.

Confused?

Yeah, tell me about it.

So in the case of Cavanaugh’s Ace purchase, what happened is that Ace’s sale offered $2 off the regular price to put the price at $21.99 and the manufacturer was offering an “instant rebate” of $5, though it was listed as an “instant savings” on the receipt.

Of course, there’s no way that Cavanaugh would have known that, Operations Manager Scott Norris acknowledged.

“I agree with the guy; the ad doesn’t communicate that well,” he said.

Norris said a lot of manufacturers have streamlined what used to be mail-in rebates that customers didn’t like to the “instant rebates” in the stores. But that, of course, can cause further confusion on the part of consumers with sales tax.

So in the end, Cavanaugh was charged the right amount of tax.

But understandably, it’s still a confusing subject.

Said Gary Gudmundson, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Taxation: “I would say the rules are clear. Maybe not to the consumer in all cases. Sometimes they’re arcane and pretty detailed, but our folks understand and apply them every day.”

The state doesn’t have the manpower to “police” retailers, but if you believe there is an issue, you can report it to the state and they will follow-up. Call the state at 888-405-4039.

Betty Lin-Fisher can be reached at 330-996-3724 or blinfisher@thebeaconjournal.com.