Harp proposes CT soda tax

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Photo by Allie Krause.

In the midst of New Haven’s 375,000 lb. weight loss challenge and other health efforts, Mayor Toni Harp is proposing a statewide 2 percent soda tax.

As part of her 2014 legislative agenda, Harp has spearheaded a 2 percent tax on high-calorie drinks to reduce sales of soda and generate about $144 million in revenue across the state. The former Connecticut State Senator first introduced a tax on soft drinks in 2010, but the proposal never passed the State’s Committee on Finance, Revenue and Bonding.

Since 2009, 30 states have proposed specific soda taxes. However, no state has successfully implemented such a tax to date. In 2013, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg attempted to crack down on large, sugary drinks through size restrictions, rather than taxes, but a New York appeals court found the proposed law unconstitutional.

Harp said that it is critical for the Elm City to tackle this policy because “too many” city residents struggle with weight issues. After surveying about 2,500 residents in low-income neighborhoods, Yale’s Community Alliance for Research and Engagement surveyed found 70 percent of adults were obese and 50 percent of children were overweight or obese, according to Harp.

“As a government, we have an obligation to let people know the impact of certain things on their body,” Harp said. “I’m hoping that people don’t think of it as a tax but as a public health initiative.”

Harp said studies have shown there is a direct relationship between sugary drink consumption and diabetes, cancer, heart disease and mental illness. Harp said the United States was able to reduce the number of people who smoke by adding a tax to cigarettes, and research has indicated that adding a similar tax to sugary drinks would reduce their consumption as well.

Roberta Friedman, director of public policy at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, said almost all of the soda tax bills that have been proposed have earmarked revenue for obesity prevention programs, a trend that aligns with Harp’s proposal. Harp believes the revenue generated from the soda tax could be used for health related purposes, such as promoting fresh fruits and vegetables, fostering nutrition education curricula and funding outdoor activities.

Unlike some other states, including New York, Connecticut doesn’t grant cities the authority to implement taxes — Harp’s proposal will only affect New Haven if it passes the state legislature and is signed by Gov. Dannel Malloy.

While State Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney agrees with Harp that pursuing such a tax is a worthwhile effort, he said it is unlikely to pass this year.

“She’s well aware, having been a senator for 21 years, that you have to lay the groundwork for future legislation,” Looney said. “This proposal is getting the issue into discussions, and it’s an important way of looking for fiscal revenue.”

Director of Economic Initiatives at the Rudd Center Tatiana Andreyeva underscored that soda taxes do not come easily.

“The beverage industry is big money, and they’re worried that if it happens in one state, other states will follow suit,” she said.

When Richmond, Calif., a city of only about 100,000 people, tried to pass a soda tax, the beverage industry poured in millions of dollars to ensure its failure, she added.

Chris Gindlesperger, a spokesman for the American Beverage Association, said in a statement that consumers do not support soda taxes or regulations restricting grocery purchases. He said that education, rather than laws, can help fight obesity, adding that companies already put calorie counts on labels and offer low- and no-calorie choices.

Even so, a 2 percent tax  may not have much of an effect. According to Friedman, a soda tax must be at least around 20 percent of the beverage price to actually have an effect on consumer behavior. Although every 10 percent increase results in a 12 percent consumption decrease, the tax must first meet that threshold.

“A penny per ounce would be the right place to start,” she said, adding that this equals out to about 20 percent and is what the Rudd Center advocates.

The average American consumes 45 gallons of sugary drinks a year.

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