Editorial: The proposed tax on sugary beverages hits a sweet spot

As the Legislature and Gov. Peter Shumlin search for the right combination of increased revenue and cuts in programs to make up a $118 million gap in the 2016 budget, a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages should be part of the conversation.
That’s because the proposed tax could net $34 million a year; because excessive sugar consumption is one of the causes of heart disease, diabetes, cancer and obesity, a disease that currently affects two out of three adults and one out of three children and costs Vermont $202 million annually; and because individuals don’t always eat what is best for them. For example, the average American consumes 45 gallons of sugary drinks each year, and ingests 30 to 34 five-pound bags of sugar annually. That becomes a serious health issue that can be addressed through taxation, not just in behavior but also through increased education.
That’s partly why a coalition of 30 health and consumer groups is now supporting the tax on sweetened drinks as one way to meet the state’s 2016 budget shortfall. It’s a proposal that hits a sweet spot by raising needed revenue and promoting better health. Hopefully, it will continue to gain political momentum.
The arguments against the tax fall short.
Senate President John Campbell is against the tax because he says it will increase the cost of living for working families, and that taxation is not the way to encourage healthier behavior. Jim Harrison, director of the Vermont Retail and Grocers Association, echoes Campbell’s sentiment that taxes should not be imposed to control behavior and adds that a proposed tax of 2 cents per ounce would particularly hurt retail grocers along the border with New Hampshire.
“This is huge,” he told VPR last week. “Make a 2-liter bottle (have) a $1.30 additional tax? …We can all agree on what food is best for you, but that’s for us as consumers to make those decisions, not for somebody in Montpelier … that’s coming from the top down.”
Nonsense. Of course we use taxation to modify behavior. Some of the heaviest excise taxes in our society are placed on those very things that are unhealthy for us — cigarettes and alcohol, for example — or items, like gasoline, that cause harm to the environment and that we aim to conserve or limit usage of. Those principles are at the heart of taxation.
And of course those policies come from the top down. Does anyone seriously think taxation comes from the bottom up? No. Rather, the use of the phrase, “from the top down” is political speak meant to elicit a visceral response against “big” government.
The most legitimate question opponents have is questioning the harm the tax would cause retail grocers along the eastern border of the state and if that harm is enough to discourage interest in the tax.
We think not. A liter, after-all, is 33.81 ounces (almost three times the typical 12-ounce drink), so it’s only a 24-cent tax on a typical soda priced at a buck or more. If you’re buying a six-pack of soda, that’s $1.44. Sure it adds up, but it’s hardly enough to make a shopper drive 15-miles across the border and back to save a few nickels (minus the gas and extra time spent). But it might be enough to make a mother or father doubt the wisdom of buying sweetened drinks by the case.
We also agree with the governor and other opponents of the tax that education should be the biggest part of the equation to get Vermonters to reduce their sugar consumption, but that doesn’t mean a tax on sugary beverages shouldn’t be implemented. On the contrary, devote a portion of the tax toward education and the rest to help reduce the $118 million budget shortfall. (And if the money for educating Vermonters on the sins of too much sugar doesn’t come from this tax, where else would it come from or would such education just not happen?) The simple fact is that the tax would not only raise needed revenue, but would also reduce health care costs associated with heart disease, diabetes, cancer and obesity.
Or perhaps opponents prefer a higher tax on income, or more cuts to programs that would create a greater hardship for working-class families.
— Angelo S. Lynn

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