Sugary drink tax draws mixed response
A measure that would add a penny per ounce fee to sugary beverages will get another hearing before the state Senate’s Health Committee takes a vote on it.
Committee Chairman Josh Green, D-Kona, said during a hearing recess Tuesday afternoon that committee members wanted more time to gather more information before voting on SB 1085, which would impose a new tax on sugar-sweetened beverages at the distributor level. They will likely take the measure back up Monday.
The fee comes out to one cent per ounce, and Department of Health Director Loretta Fuddy, island doctors and some other state officials, including a representative testifying for Gov. Neil Abercrombie, said they believe the tax will decrease consumption of sugary beverages and help prevent diabetes and obesity, especially among children.
Representatives for the beverage and restaurant industries disagreed, and said the measure would harm local businesses.
“Will you go out and drink a $6 soda?” Hawaii Bar Owners Association spokesman Bill Comerford asked. “In the long run, we have to raise the prices. … If you lose the business, you lose the tax bases. Who do you tax then?”
Hawaii Restaurant Association Executive Director Roger Morey called the measure, which could end up increasing the price of soda, for example, by about 25 percent, unconscionable. Worse, he said, it won’t even accomplish what health officials claim it will do.
“If this bill were to become law, you would be sending the wrong message to the people who are obese, ‘Stop drinking sugary beverages and you will be safe,’” Morey said. “It should start at home with the parents and the schools to educate the children on proper diet and exercise.”
Fuddy said parents are confused by the marketing messages that show elite athletes drinking sports drinks, such as Gatorade. The message of those ads is the drink is healthy, but it’s not, Fuddy said.
Pediatricians testified about seeing 8-year-olds in their offices who weigh up to 180 pounds, showing signs of insulin resistance, mostly because of the amount of sugary beverages the children are drinking.
Dr. Kalani Brady, a primary care doctor and John A. Burns School of Medicine professor, said individual doctors can only do so much to change people’s behaviors.
“It is known that public health decisions like this make a far more important course of change than doctors like myself,” Brady said. “Since the late 1970s, sugar-sweetened beverage use among adults has more than doubled. Soda consumption nearly doubles the risk of dental caries in children — $470 million a year is spent on obesity and obesity related disease.”
Human Services Department Director Patricia McManaman, responding to Green’s questions, said the state’s budget for Medicaid programs is about $1.4 billion.
“This is costing me my health care dollars,” Fuddy added. “Our insurance rates continue to rise and part of that is because we’re treating such hard diseases as diabetes.”
Not all of the senators were convinced.
“My question always is, what is the role of the parents and responsibility for parents in the home here?” Sen. Sam Slom, R-Hawaii Kai. “We keep involving government. And yet that’s a small part of life. By taxing all of us, you’re penalizing all of us for something parents aren’t doing.”
Sen. Suzanne Chun-Oakland questioned whether the governor’s obesity tax force, which recommended the tax, considered unintended consequences of increasing the costs of sugary beverages.
“My concern is by taxing one part of it, it will send the message it’s OK and better to choose a diet soda that’s probably just as bad,” she said. “I think there’s pretty good evidence about aspartame being a neurotoxin.”
A task force member said they did discuss that, but said the focus was on sugar and sugary beverages, and that the scientific research on aspartame was not as conclusive as the research on sugar and its health impacts.