Hawaii, much like the rest of the country, sees about 10 percent of its total expenditures each year go toward diabetes treatment, Sen. Josh Green, D-Kona, says.
Nationally, that’s about $330 billion spent on diabetes, a figure that nears U.S. military spending, Green added. Much of those costs in Hawaii are borne by taxpayers, via treatment through Medicaid programs such as Quest. More than half of Hawaii Island residents are enrolled in Quest, Green said.
“Can you imagine if that trend keeps up and doubles over the next 10 years?” Green asked Tuesday, the morning after SB 1085 passed out of the Senate Health Committee, which Green, a doctor, chairs. “We will crumble under the weight of our health problem.”
About 275,000 Hawaii residents are enrolled in Medicaid, and the state spent $1.7 billion on the program last year, Green said. Of that, hundreds of millions were spent treating illnesses such as diabetes.
The bill would impose a penny per ounce fee on sugary beverages — sports drinks, juice and soda — at the distributor level. Introduced at Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s request, the bill would direct the fee, estimated to top $30 million annually once the program is in full swing, to programs to prevent childhood obesity. Green said studies show drinking even one soda a day can increase a child’s chances of becoming overweight or obese.
He doesn’t care what adults do, he added, but children should not be drinking sugary beverages.
A similar measure two years ago failed to advance out of committee, in part, Green said, because it directed the funds into the state’s General Fund. Putting the money into a fund designed to combat childhood obesity, and eventually the broader, related health problems, is a good start, but Green said he understands making soda and juice more expensive isn’t a silver bullet.
He said he supports several other measures, including encouraging schools to reincorporate more physical activity, requiring, through planning efforts, more parks and walking paths in neighborhoods and decreasing the amount of fatty foods people consume.
Another change this legislative session was the support of the pediatric community around the state. Two years ago, Green said no doctors provided testimony in support of a soda tax. This month, the state’s pediatric association, as well as a number of doctors, testified in person to support the measure.
“Clearly, from the health perspective, it was the right thing to do,” Green said.
He said it wasn’t as clear whether the bill will ultimately make good financial sense. That’s up to the Ways and Means Committee, which next hears the bill, to decide, he said.
Food industry officials and representatives of the beverage bottling industry testified against the bill, citing the added costs to submit the tax, as well as the negative impact higher prices for such beverages could have on sellers.
At least one senator questioned whether taxing sugary beverages could just drive more people to drink artificially sweetened beverages. Green said that’s nonsense, adding his committee also passed a measure requiring more strict labelling for artificially sweetened drinks.
Further, he said, he’s not worried about a $60 billion industry that is already responding to national calls to drink less soda and coming up with lower calories beverages to sell, nor a bottling industry that will benefit from increased sales of no-calorie and low-calories drinks.