Life, death and the SSB tax

Wednesday March 6, 2013

It appears to be the most American of battles. The free market business sector is fighting the social issues advocacy groups. The line is drawn and you are either on one side or the other.

One side says that adding a penny an ounce tax to sugar sweetened beverages (SSBs) will hurt small convenience stores and mom and pop businesses in Vermont. It probably won't cut into the revenues of the bottlers who will be paying the tax because they will just pass the cost down the line.

The intent of the tax is to have fewer people drink the beverages that have no nutritional value and that contribute significantly to the epidemic of obesity and Type II Diabetes that we are now experiencing.

It may be helpful to compare this debate to the one that happened when the tobacco tax was beginning to increase the cost of cigarettes. Back then most people were convinced of the evils of tobacco and they were willing to live with a tax so that we could stop some people from smoking and decrease the number of lung cancer deaths.

That strategy was successful and now people who smoke have almost become pariahs, having to hide their habit while looking for fewer and fewer places where they can light up. An entire society changed its attitude about smoking and we are all healthier because of it. We have even saved a lot of money in health care dollars.

There are some fairly liberal political types who don't like the SSB tax because they call it regressive. A regressive tax hurts low income people more than higher income people. In the case of SSBs, more low income people consume them so they would have to pay more to continue their bad habit. Where were they when the tobacco tax was being implemented?

A tax may be labeled regressive, but one has to step back and look at all of the facts before rejecting it merely on the basis of regressivity. After all, this is a life and death issue and decisions should be made in the largest context possible.

The harm of drinking a 20 ounce beverage with 15 teaspoons of sugar on a daily basis could be compared to smoking a pack of cigarettes each day. They are both bad habits that lead to disease, suffering and possibly death.

Studies may show that lower income people drink more SSBs, but that does not mean we have to stand by rigid political philosophy to make sure they have the right to consume something that is harmful.

A society has a responsibility to make laws that promote the common good. One of those goods should be the health of individuals and society. When you consider the fact that we have already made a commitment to lower income people by providing them with varying levels of subsidized health insurance and social benefits, then the argument for having some control over those public dollars make sense.

I see the consequences of the consumption of SSBs on a daily basis. So do most health care providers. I suspect that may be part of the reason why Rep. George Till MD-D-Jericho, an obstetrician, has been so frustrated with the political process surrounding the SSB tax. When you have to deal with the potentially deadly consequences of obesity in the context of pregnancy you want to do everything you can to make life better for new mothers and their babies rather than have to constantly be prepared for predictable emergencies. Maybe Till should bring a few legislators into the labor and delivery rooms when he is dealing with an obese woman who has developed complications while giving birth.

The health care system is using more and more resources to treat people who are dealing with the ravages of obesity and diabetes. I suspect that if ideological hardliners and those uncompromising in their support of businesses in relation to the SSB tax had to spend a day in the operating room watching surgeons cut off gangrenous diabetic legs of morbidly obese patients who have made a habit of drinking SSBs for years, they might be willing to change their stand.

One would think that a law that would slow the epidemic of obesity and diabetes was something we could all get behind. Unfortunately, we have a governor who believes the business side of the equation should carry more weight and he has recruited a lot of allies. They need to do a little time in the OR.

Those of us who understand the sensibility of a tax on SSBs feel frustrated that we can't get everyone to see that helping people to lead healthier lives should be the highest priority.

If you want to add your voice to the debate, now is the time. Call 802-828-3333or e-mail: (go to contact page at: the Governor and the Speaker of the House, 802-828-2245,

When you make your single voice heard, politicians know there are at least 50 other people who feel the same. One voice makes a difference in Vermont.

Richard Davis is a registered nurse and executive director of Vermont Citizens Campaign for Health. He writes from Guilford and welcomes comments at


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