Health advocates propose tax on sugary drinks

MONTPELIER — Health advocates are calling for a tax on sugary drinks that could raise as much as $34 million in new revenue.

Members of Alliance for a Healthier Vermont — a coalition of more than 30 state organizations — gathered Tuesday at the State House to urge lawmakers to pass legislation that would impose a tax of 2 cents an ounce on sugary drinks.

“Some of you may have seen stories on a report that claims Vermont is the second-healthiest state in the nation. But beyond that happy-sounding headline, there is a sadder reality that deserves to be reported,” said Anthony Iarrapino, campaign director of Alliance for a Healthier Vermont. “The reality is, Vermont is not immune from obesity and the preventative diseases it causes.”

According to the state Department of Health, 60 percent of Vermonters are overweight or obese; for children, that number is 29 percent. Obesity is not just unhealthy, it’s expensive. In the United States, 21 percent of health care costs are spent on obesity-related conditions.

Alliance for a Healthier Vermont argues that raising the price on sugary drinks will result in a decline in consumption, which has risen 500 percent in the United States during the past 50 years. In January 2014, Mexico — the largest consumer of sugary drinks in the world — implemented a sugary-drink tax, and saw consumption decline 10 percent during the first six months of the year.

Rep. Alison Clarkson, D-Woodstock, has joined lead sponsor Rep George Till, D-Jericho, on a bill to tax sugary drinks. The bill is being crafted and is expected to be introduced next week.

“I’m a big support of — instead of paying for the problem, which is what we’re currently doing, for the obesity and the diabetes and all the issues that surround high-fructose corn syrup and sugar-sweetened beverages — I would rather tax its consumption,” Clarkson said. “I’d rather put the money into prevention than paying for the problem at the far end.”

According to the medical journal “Obesity Research,” obesity -related health issues cost Vermonters $200 million annually, including $41 million in Medicare costs and $57 million in Medicaid costs.

A tax on sugary drinks has been proposed in past sessions and has failed to garner much support among lawmakers.

“I don’t know what the current support is within the House. I think the challenge on this kind of revenue source always is this: you are building a revenue source that you hope is going to decline, because it will change behavior,” said House Speaker Shap Smith. “Great health benefit, but from a revenue perspective it’s problematic. We don’t need more declining sources of revenue in the general fund.”

Senate Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor, voiced his opposition to the idea of a sugary drink tax, saying it will hurt merchants who operate along the state border in his county.

“I believe very strongly in advancing policy that will help Vermonters lead healthier lives. However, the proposal to tax beverages containing added sugar is not the way to address our shared goal,” Campbell said. “Taxation is not the way to encourage healthy behavior. This proposal will not only increase the cost of living for working families, it will also harm the businesses that produce these beverages and those who bottle, distribute and sell them.”

Jim Harrison, president of the Vermont Retailers & Grocers Association, voiced his opposition to taxing sugary drinks.

“A two-cents-per-ounce tax on certain beverages puts local businesses at a disadvantage to neighboring communities and will have a negative impact on family budgets,” Harrison said. “Politicians should focus on what matters most — education, jobs and the economy — and leave the grocery shopping to us and our customers.”

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