A newly proposed tax could make soda and candy a little less sweet.
Connecticut state Rep. Juan Candelaria, D-New Haven, has proposed a new state tax on sugary soft drinks and candies. The tax aims to curb childhood obesity through a multi-pronged approach of disincentivizing sugary foods and drinks and using the added tax revenue to support anti-obesity programs. Policy experts and researchers interviewed said that the exact effects of the tax are hard to predict — it will be the first such tax in the nation if it passes the legislature — but it is a promising public health measure.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that there is a serious problem with the public’s health,” Candelaria said. “This measure can decrease consumption of sweets and health concerns associated with that.”
The proposed tax will levy one cent per ounce of drink or candy. Similar taxes have been proposed by Connecticut legislators in the past, but none has been enacted into law. Last year, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., introduced the SWEET Act to impose a national tax on sugary drinks, while State Sen. Martin Looney, D-New Haven, proposed a similar bill in the Connecticut legislature. Candelaria’s proposal is the first that taxes candy as well.
The proposal states that the revenue generated from the new tax will be used to support childhood obesity prevention programs, fund municipalities and contribute to the Governor’s Scholarship program fund, a college scholarship for low-income students.
According to the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity’s Revenue Calculator for Soft Drink Taxes, which generates predictions based on past data, a “penny per ounce” tax on all sugary drinks, including fruit drinks and sports drinks, would yield an annual revenue of $141 million. An equivalent tax on only soda would yield an annual revenue of $88 million.
The goal of this tax is to address the rising trends in cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity, especially among children, Candelaria said.
Candelaria first got the idea for the bill during a discussion about healthcare disparities at the National Council of Hispanic State Legislators. A similar tax was proposed by Mayor Toni Harp to address the high incidence of obesity, said Laurence Grotheer, spokesperson for the mayor’s office.
Based on past research suggesting that prices of food have an impact on what people eat, it is reasonable to conclude that increasing the price of sugary drinks will decrease consumption, said Marlene Schwartz, director of the Rudd Center. Tatiana Andreyeva, director of economic initiatives at the Rudd Center, added that the “penny per ounce” tax will be equivalent to a 25 percent tax, which is a substantial price increase.
But this strategy alone will not lead to a decrease childhood obesity rates, Schwartz said.
Jason Block, professor of population medicine at the Harvard Medical School, noted that studies of similar taxes have shown that they result, on average, in only a 20 to 30-calorie decrease in consumption per person per day. But he added that the effect will be magnified over the entire population, affecting obesity rates.
Economists have also been debating whether penalizing soda purchases is the right way to motivate healthy behaviors, Block said. Incentivizing alternate beverages, such as water, might be a more politically feasible approach, he added.
The tobacco tax, considered by some to be an analog to the soda tax, faced similar backlash in the mid-20th century. According to Schwartz, the results of the tobacco tax show that taxes can be used to disincentivize certain products while simultaneously helping the economy.
“The government exercises a role to protect the public health,” Candelaria said. “We regulate seatbelts, vaccinations, alcohol and tobacco taxes — this would be for the same purpose.”
Candelaria said he is certain that the bill will receive opposition from soda and candy companies. Some of those companies have already begun to oppose it.
Chris Gindlesperger, senior director of public affairs at the American Beverage Association, considers the tax to be a “short-sighted proposal.”
“We can’t tax our way to better health,” Gindlesperger said. “It takes all sectors of society coming together to address the issue in a comprehensive way.”
The American Beverage Association has been opposed to soda taxes, Gindlesperger said, since they arbitrarily discriminate against soft drinks. These beverages, he said, constitute only 4 percent of a person’s daily caloric intake.
He added that soda taxes could have detrimental impacts on the economy, affecting employment and day-to-day business in small convenience stores which carry out a lot of business in soda and candy.
But a study from professor of health policy and administration at the University of Illinois at Chicago Lisa Powell indicates otherwise. She and other researchers simulated the effects on employment of a soda tax, and found that Illinois and California would experience a 0.06 percent and 0.03 percent increase in employment, respectively.
Because there have been no studies of widely implemented soda taxes, it is difficult to predict their exact effects, Andreyeva said. The first soda tax was approved in Berkeley, California in November, so studies are just beginning, she added.
Block predicted a difficult battle for policymakers in enacting the legislation. The bill has been referred to the Committee on Children, and a public hearing will be held some time within the next month, Candelaria said.
Forty-eight percent of Americans drink soda on a daily basis, according to a Gallup poll.