PUBLISHED: April 15, 2013

Reconsider penny-per-ounce soda tax

Dr. Peter Reed | Burlington Free Press | Link to article

As a pediatric resident physician at the University of Vermont I see children who are overweight or obese every week in my primary care clinic. Together with their parents, we work on a plan for healthy weight management through behavior change. We talk about eating a good breakfast every day, getting exercise as part of a daily routine, snacking wisely, and drinking water rather than soda and juice. This may sound like a good way to make a difference, but changing behavior is hard. It is especially difficult for children, who depend on their parents to make good choices for them.

Because changing behavior is so difficult, my patients, their parents, and I need all of the help we can get to combat obesity. We need the healthiest choice to be the easiest choice. The sugar-sweetened beverage excise tax makes it easier to choose healthy alternatives to sweetened sports drinks, juices and sodas. And, it uses the revenues -- up to $27 million -- for obesity prevention and education. It’s a win-win.

Unfortunately, Vermont legislators are bowing to beverage industry lobbyists. They are putting aside the penny-per-ounce excise tax on sugar-sweetened beverages in favor of lifting the sales tax exemption on soda and candy. The problem? The excise tax will change behavior and potentially reduce childhood obesity in Vermont. The sales tax will not.

The penny-per-ounce excise tax increases the sticker price of sugar-sweetened beverages. A child, or her parent, will not see the tax on the sales receipt -- she will see the higher price on the shelf, at the moment when she is deciding whether or not to buy a sugary drink. And, the increased price will scale with the size of the drink by a penny per ounce. Studies show that that is a powerful disincentive. Consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages in Vermont could decline by as much as 12 percent overall, and more in children, which is enough to make a real dent in childhood obesity.

By contrast, the sales tax will not increase the sticker price of sugar-sweetened beverages. The tax will appear on the sales receipt, long after the crucial moment of decision. And, because the tax is on the price of the drink and not the volume, it could have the perverse effect of encouraging children and their parents to buy larger containers of sugary drinks.

Given the real differences between the excise tax and the sales tax, it is no surprise the beverage industry is pushing the sales tax over the excise tax.

Vermont legislators should revisit the penny-per-ounce excise tax because of the real impact it could have on the health of Vermont’s children by reducing obesity. Overweight youth are at higher risk for sleep apnea, gallstones, fatty liver disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Overweight children are more likely to become overweight and obese adults with higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and early death.

In my primary care clinic, I see directly the impact sugary drinks have on my patients’ weight and health. Kids who drink too many sugary drinks gain weight too fast. The rare child -- and parent -- who can make the behavior change to reduce the amount of sugar he drinks, even if that is the only change he makes, either loses weight or slows his weight gain to match his growth.

Opponents of the excise tax argue that our government should not be making decisions about our health. That argument was lost decades ago when we decided to sanitize our public drinking water, limit air pollution from factories, and, more recently, ban smoking in workplaces. Cheap sugar-sweetened beverages are a toxic part of the environment we and our children live in. The sugar-sweetened beverage excise tax acknowledges that fact and begins to mitigate it.

I believe sugar-sweetened beverages are the single best target to reduce childhood obesity. Gov. Shumlin and the Vermont Legislature should shelve the sales tax on soda and pass the penny-per-ounce sugar-sweetened beverage excise tax.


Sign up for email

New England Alliance for Children's Health

NEACH, an initiative of Community Catalyst, is a broad coalition of over 500 New England-based health care and child advocates, hospitals and health care providers, legal experts, interfaith organizations, business leaders, and consumers dedicated to promoting access to high-quality, affordable health care for all children.