A sweet tax

Tuesday February 19, 2013

House Bill 234, which would levy a one-cent per ounce tax on sweetened beverages, is a step in the right direction. If passed by the Vermont House of Representatives, approved by the Senate and signed into law by the governor, half the revenues would go into a "Healthy Weight Initiative Fund" and the other half would be deposited into the already created State Health Care Resources Fund.

The Reformer has gone on record before stating not only should sweetened beverages be taxed, but also candy and "foods" such as packaged snack cakes, pastries and cookies, doughnuts, chips, crackers and, yes, packaged cereals (read the ingredients label; you might be horrified to learn that one-quarter to one-third of that "wholesome" breakfast cereal you are feeding your child is sugar).

The over-consumption of food and beverages that are high in sugar and other refined carbohydrates is the reason why obesity has become a national epidemic. And packaged "food" and sweetened drinks are the Typhoid Marys of obesity and that other epidemic overwhelming our health care system -- diabetes.

"The obesity epidemic and growing intake of refined carbohydrates have created a ‘perfect storm’ for the development of cardiometabolic disorders," noted Frank Hu, of the Harvard School of Public Health’s Department of Nutrition. "For this reason, reduction of refined carbohydrate intake should be a top public health priority."

(Cardiometabolic disorders include heart disease and diabetes.)

Hu noted obesity and diabetes can be treated with moderately restricted carbohydrate diets rich in vegetable fats and protein, but those carbs should be of the whole grain type, surely not refined carbs such as sugar, white flour and white rice.

"In addition, limiting sugar-sweetened beverage consumption, a major source of dietary (glycemic load) and excess calories, has been associated with lower risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes and (heart disease) in the long term," wrote Hu.

Tina Zuk, the Vermont representative of the American Heart Association, told Vermont Public Radio the average Vermonter consumes 50 gallons of soda a year. To which we add !!!

If the tax was passed, that would mean the average Vermonter would pay $62 extra each year for all that sugar water, or a little more than $1 a week.

So the question is, if a two-liter bottle of soda costs you about 66 cents more than today, would it cut down on your soda consumption? If, say, that bottle of Gatorade or other "sports drink" cost you 15 or 25 cents more would you chug a glass of water instead?

"Research indicates that if the taxes are large enough they could reduce consumption, and therefore affect obesity rates," according to the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity.

A group of small general stores and "kwik marts," called the Stop the Vermont Beverage Tax coalition, says a proposed excise tax on sugary beverages will hurt their businesses.

In a recent media statement, representatives for the group, including Sen. Dick Mazza, D-Colchester, and Rep. Mike Marcotte, R-Newport, who both own stores, said the tax would drive customers and small businesses across the border to New Hampshire.

The coalition has attempted to add academic credence to its contention by trotting out Art Woolf, UVM economics professor and darling of the free-market extremists at the Ethan Allen Institute, who said increased costs would mean people would buy less of it or cross the river to purchase it in the Granite State.

"Small stores are not going to see decreased sales any more than any other kind of store, and shoppers said they will not cross the border to buy sugar-sweetened beverages," said Jane Kolodinsky, Ph.D. Chair, Department of Community Development and Applied Economics Director, Center for Rural Studies/Food Systems Research Collaborative at UVM, during a hearing in Montpelier on Feb. 8.

She discussed a study she and her team conducted in 2011 that evaluated the impact of a penny-per-ounce tax on sweetened beverages, especially on convenience stores and gas stations, and whether consumers will go to New Hampshire to make purchases.

"There is currently no evidence that this will be the case," said Kolodinsky. "Opponents of the excise tax, in fact, use hedged language, ‘could cost jobs’ and ‘may impact employment.’"

However, her study did agree with Woolf’s conclusion that the tax would cut down on purchases of sweetened beverages: An 11 percent increase in the price of a 16-ounce soda would lead to an 18 percent decrease in demand "with 22 percent of those affected choosing a non-taxed beverage or other item. ... (M)any consumers who do not purchase a SSB after the tax, would buy something, and choose no calories (nothing) or a no- or lower-calorie beverage (water, diet beverage)."

Interestingly, noted Kolodinsky, and probably with a smile, people who might travel to the Granite State for a soda pop or sports drink would actually spend more on gasoline than they would save in taxes avoided.

"For the single serve 16 oz. purchaser, saving $.16 would cost $1.81 plus the cost of their time and wear on their vehicle ..."

Meanwhile, Jim Harrison, president of the Vermont Grocer’s Association, relies on old tropes to explain why Americans are getting fat: "Gaining weight is caused by a very simple equation. You consume more calories than you expend. If you don’t get up to turn the TV channel, and you have to sit down on the couch and use your remote, you’re not going to use as many calories. It’s really simple math. To single out one item and try and make it a scapegoat is very unfortunate and really misses the point."

That’s the old "a calorie is a calorie" argument, which is in the process of being overturned by actual science.

"From a metabolic perspective, all calories are not alike," said Dr. David Ludwig, director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Children’s Hospital in Boston. "The quality of the calories going in affects the quantity of the calories going out."

Ludwig said the consumption of sugars and refined carbohydrates lead to a rapid surge and crash in blood sugar after a meal, making you want to eat more. If you want to lose weight and reduce cardiometabolic diseases, stick to diets full of whole foods.

We believe a sugar-sweetened beverage tax is a good first step to make ourselves and our communities healthier and reduce health care costs.

Unfortunately, Gov. Peter Shumlin, who is nothing if not fit and trim, opposes the tax, and Health Commissioner Harry Chen recently told VTDigger that research into the effectiveness of the tax isn’t persuasive or conclusive.

We like the governor, but we ask him to slap away the hand of the Vermont Grocer’s Association and do the right thing for his constituents and support the tax. We urge our readers to contact his office and encourage him to rethink his position and throw his weight behind House Bill 234.


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