Guest Editorial: Sugar tax should be part of health reform

George Till represents the town of Jericho. He is a Democrat by choice and a doctor by trade. Presumably, he thought his professional background would be an asset as the Legislature dealt with health care reform and its many variants.
He is experiencing, first-hand, the frustration that results from a commonsense objective being thwarted by the politics of money and the difficulty of individuals assuming responsibility for their own health.
What he proposes is a one-cent per ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. He is taking direct aim at one of the major contributors to obesity — the consumption of sugar.
Almost all major studies have identified sugar as the major villain in diets that put roughly a third of all Americans in the overweight or obese category. Obesity leads to diseases such as diabetes, a disease that experts estimate will cost us over $4 trillion to treat over the next 10 years.
From Mr. Till’s perspective, and experience, it would seem prudent to take steps to reduce the consumption of sugar. Placing an excise tax on sugar-sweetened beverages seemed the easiest and most acceptable way to proceed. The beverages are not essential for anyone’s diet and the benefits of reduced consumption are beyond doubt.
The excise tax would raise an estimated $27 million and Mr. Till and his co-sponsors have devised a variety of ways to use the money to promote their cause. A third of the money raised would go toward a “Vermont Healthy Weight Fund Initiative,” one-third would be put in the Catamount fund, and the final third would be used to administer the law, along with other needs.
In other words, here is a way to incent people to consume less of what is harmful to them, which promotes better health, which would help reduce health care costs, which would also create a fund to promote health care needs.
The need is so obvious that every public health organization in the state supports it.
It’s not likely to pass, however. Gov. Peter Shumlin is opposed. He fears the effect of Vermont shoppers crossing state lines to buy their soda. He has been relentless in his pledge not to raise taxes. And he doubts all the studies that show behavior can be changed through pricing.
Mr. Till has also run up against the sugar lobby, which basically tosses up a study saying all the other studies are wrong. And then, there is the oft-repeated claim that the tax would be regressive in that the poorest would feel the price increase the most.
First, the governor is wrong. A one-cent per ounce tax would change behavior. This has been shown repeatedly. And the fear that people would cross state lines for their purchases has been exaggerated, something that was shown when the Legislature increased the tax on cigarette
Second, those who advocate on the side of the sugar lobby are arguing from their own vantage point. Their jobs are to increase the consumption of sugar. Their points of view should be seen for what they are: self-interest.
Third, yes, of course the tax is regressive. Mr. Till et al deal with this through contributions to the Catamount fund, etc. But the proper response is almost a sense of indignation. The game is rigged. The calories consumed through sweetened beverages are empty, pushing people to consume more. The sugar industry is also heavily subsidized, which means their products are cheap. When faced with the choice of eating healthier but more expensive foods, poor people pick the cheaper product. And it is the poor who are disproportionately affected by the various afflictions that result from poor diets.
Mr. Till addresses this need, in part, by devoting part of the $27 million toward subsidizing the purchases of fruits and vegetables by WIC and 3SquaresVT recipients.
At least Mr. Till is proposing a way to help. What are those who oppose the idea doing? Fighting anything that changes the way we do business.
And that is why we are where we are.
We continue to believe that health care reform means finding a new way to keep on doing what we have always done. That’s an illusion. In the last analysis, the only thing that will work is for each of us to accept more responsibility for our own health.
That is Mr. Till’s point.
Emerson Lynn

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