• Sweet deal
    February 15,2013

    Sometimes itís good to press a point even when you know that in the end youíre going to lose. Thatís the case with the tax on sugar-sweetened beverages that is losing its fizz in the Legislature.

    The idea is to add 1 cent per ounce of sweetened drinks. Thus, a 24-ounce soda would come with a 24-cent tax.

    Not surprisingly, Vermont retailers hate this idea, especially those along the Connecticut River who say shoppers will travel to New Hampshire to buy their beverages. Gov. Peter Shumlin never liked the idea, arguing that the tax was regressive, hitting low-income consumers hardest and that it was not sufficiently punitive to effect much of a reduction in soda purchases.

    One wonders if the governor is aware of the contradictions afflicting his view: It will hurt consumers, but not enough to make them quit drinking sweet drinks; it will hurt business, but it will not cause people to stop buying. Some consumers will shop in New Hampshire, as they do already, though at least one study suggests that for most people the tax is not enough of a reason to drive across the river.

    Supporters of the beverage tax say that experience has demonstrated that taxes cut down on consumption. The tax on tobacco has yielded good information on how taxes at varying rates affect consumer choices. Especially among poor people and especially among kids, all indications are that the tax would cut down on the consumption of harmful beverages.

    Thatís why the Low-Income Advocacy Council is among the organizations supporting the tax. So are the leading health organizations that are working to diminish illnesses such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease. Health Commissioner Harry Chen must be grinding his teeth at having to represent the Shumlin point of view against taking on one of the most serious public health problems now plaguing Vermonters.

    The tax is an elegant solution to several problems. It would discourage harmful behavior, and it would bring in up to $24 million that could be used for health programs that are calling out for funding.

    Retailers make the same argument that they have made in relation to tobacco: It will cut into our sales and hurt our business. But that is precisely the point. The demands of public health make it a plus if Vermonters buy less soda. They should buy less soda. This point of view may be dismissed as the demand of meddling, nanny-state liberals, except that the obesity crisis is a reality that canít be denied. It is like the lung cancer and heart disease crisis caused by tobacco. Sugary drinks are not the only cause of obesity, but they are one of the most obvious, direct and insidious.

    The political stars are not lined up for the tax, but that does not mean the case should not be made. The leaders in both houses have issued mutterings about how the tax would probably not be so effective and that a broader attack on obesity would be more worthwhile. Meanwhile, they have been having fun with the Vermont Grocersí Association, attending a recent luncheon and competing in a grocery bagging contest. It is not insignificant that Sen. Richard Mazza, an influential legislator, is a store owner.

    At one time it seemed like too much of a reach to prohibit smoking in bars. But then it seemed ridiculous not to. Over time anti-tobacco forces got their message across that tobacco kills, and attitudes across the nation have changed.

    The argument about soda and other sugary drinks needs to be made again and again. Coke and Pepsi are huge corporations with a broad reach. And they are making Americans sick. They are pouring huge amounts of sugar down the throats of the American consumer, and the peopleís health is suffering.

    Of course, the consumer is not an innocent victim. He or she makes the choice. But as with tobacco, we can insist that the choice come with a price that helps compensate society for the costs of treating the illnesses that are a consequence of the choice.

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