On August 13, 2014

The tax on sweetened drinks could be a win-win scenario

By Angelo S. Lynn

Vermont is at it again: angling to be a national leader on yet another public policy issue. This time it’s the effort to reduce consumption of sugar-laden beverages.

The angle? Pass a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.

The Legislature, however, isn’t in the driver’s seat. Rather, the Alliance for a Healthier Vermont has hired a full-time leader for the campaign and intends to be the lobbying force behind the initiative. Efforts to pass similar measures failed in 2010 and 2013, but this coming session seems ripe for passage, according to Anthony Iarrapino, 38, who will direct the campaign for the Alliance.

“We’re going to have the resources this time around to really mobilize and educate the public and policy makers on the wisdom of Vermont once again leading the nation in an important policy area,” Iarrapino told VTDigger earlier this week, adding that the recent revelation that the state was short $31 million in revenue forecasts adds to the need to raise more state revenue. A two-cent tax on sugar-sweetened beverages would generate roughly $35 million.

The initiative is also common sense. There are two common ways to drive consumer actions toward a certain product: raise the price and educate the public about the product’s detriments. That has long been the effort in reducing tobacco use. Better health care outcomes for Vermonters is the obvious benefiit of the tax, with an important side benefit of reducing dollars spent in the health care system (which could far exceed the tax revenue gained.)

But therein lies an important lesson. If a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages is to be used to educate the public about the ills of too much sugar in our diets (it’s a leading cause of obesity, diabetes and heart disease), then those funds cannot also be diluted to shore up statewide budget deficits, or help fund the state’s move toward a single-payer health care system — both of which are items supporters have said might benefit from the new tax. Simply put, there’s not enough money to go around.

Jim Harrison, president of the Vermont Retail and Grocers’ Association, and his group successfully opposed similar initiatives in the past and rightly notes that while $35 million is nothing to sneeze at, it won’t add much of a punch to a $2 billion health care system, the projected $31 million shortfall this coming year and start an education program that reduces the consumption of sugary drinks.

Harrison also rejects the idea of the tax because it’s regressive. But the argument that has won the opposition most support is the fear the tax will send more business along Vermont’s border towns to neighboring states that don’t have a similar tax. That’s the argument Iarrapino and the Alliance will have to effectively counter, as well as the lobbying effort the Vermont Retailers and Grocers’ Association will undoubtedly mount.

But the Alliance has the advantage: Promoting better health is the trump card. It’s also the right thing to do. The general public agrees, according to polls, on both accounts.

Overcoming the political opposition is the challenge the Alliance faces, and that’s best done with a straightforward presentation of the facts of sugar-related diseases (that is, the excess of sugar in our diets) without a lot of hyperbole or fear-mongering.

Harrison and the opposition should respond in kind by honestly examing the potential for lost business along the state’s border towns and not exaggerating the hardships retailers might endure if the tax were to pass. A 2-cent tax on a $1.25 soda isn’t going to stop most people from buying the beverage if they want it, nor is it going to drive a consumer 20 miles across a border to save a few pennies.

Better yet, both sides might try working together to come up with a campaign to educate consumers on why buying quality foods close to home is not only good for personal health, but also good for the local economy. If the $200,000 the Alliance has received to promote this campaign could be tweaked to fit that message, perhaps both sides could come out winners.

Angelo S. Lynn is the publisher of the Addison Independent newspaper in Middlebury, a sister publication to The Mountain Times.

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