AP NEWS

Proponents push health benefits to sweeten CT sugar drink tax

April 16, 2019

HARTFORD — The legislature’s chief advocate for a tax on sweetened beverages is trying hard to push the initiative as a broader behavioral health care agenda and not a money grab for the cash-starved state.

Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, and other advocates for the tax on sugary beverages, held a press conference Tuesday at the Legislative Office Building to continue to have Connecticut become the first state in the nation to adopt such a tax.

Gov. Ned Lamont’s budget proposed a 1.5 cent per ounce tax on sweetened beverages. That amounts to about 18 cents on a 12-ounce can or $2.16 cents on a 12-pack of soda or a $1.92 tax on a gallon jug of iced tea.

“I see this as a behavior changer,” Steinberg, co-chairman of the Public Health Committee, said. “I am not concentrated on the taxes.”

Lamont’s budget estimates the tax will bring in $163.1 million in 2021, the first year the tax would be implemented.

In the past, lawmakers have debated a one-cent-per-ounce excise tax on sugary beverages, including sodas, juices, and sports drinks. And like past proposals it would not apply to flavored milk or 100 percent juice.

Since 2008, there have been 55 proposals across the country to tax sugary drinks that have been defeated.

Steinberg said the sugar beverage tax falls right in line with a bill, that has more bipartisan support, to raise the age for tobacco and vaping products from the current age of 18 to 21.

Steinberg acknowledged that the sugary beverage tax initiative has a tougher road to climb to become law than the tobacco bill - because it has opposition not only from the American Beverage Association but also from within the legislature.

Opponents to the sugary tax include the Progressive Caucus, which argue the tax is regressive and will disproportionately impact working- and middle-class families, especially in the cities where healthy grocery options aren’t as readily available as more affluent suburban areas.

“I know there is lots of talk about regressivity,” Steinberg said, but he argued that the tax won’t have as big an impact “if people change their behavior.”

Supporting Steinberg on that point was Maritza Bond, health director for the city of Bridgeport.

“Bridgeport has the highest obesity rates in Connecticut,” Bond said, “and sugary drinks are one of the single largest reasons.”

She said there are small stores on every street corner in Bridgeport that sell unhealthy sugary drinks to residents of the city.

Also speaking in support was Dr. Sandra Carbonari, a Waterbury pediatrician.

“One-quarter of children drink a 12-ounce sugary beverage day,” Carbonari said. “And teens are even more likely to drink the beverages.”

Carbonari added that the percentages of sugary drink users goes up even higher when you factor in race.

“The health problems this brings cannot be solved in a pediatricians office,” she said, adding that besides the often stated symptoms such as obesity and diabetes there are issues such as dental decay.

According to most recent statistics, 31.7 percent of Connecticut kindergartners and third graders, as well as 26.2 percent of high school students, are not at a healthy weight.

The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that children and teens consume fewer than 10 percent of calories from added sugars. But data show that children and teens now consume 17 percent of their calories from added sugars—nearly half of which comes from drinks alone.

Sugary drink consumption is directly linked to expensive, chronic illnesses such as Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. People who drink sugary drinks regularly- one to two cans a day or more- have a 26 percent greater risk of developing Type 2 diabetes than those who rarely have such drinks.

As far as the American Beverage Association, Steinberg argued that the industry has seen changes coming and has already moved towards a plan of selling more and more beverages with zero sugar.

The American Beverage Association concedes that point, but a spokesman for the industry, William Dermondy, stated: “There are also better ways to fund budget priorities without raising taxes on people who can least afford it.”

Steinberg conceded one other problem area for proponents is that cynics have a hard time believing the pitch that money raised from the taxes will be used to fund programs to educate people on health issues and not funneled into the general fund to pay for operations, which is what has happened with cigarette taxes over the past few years.

Steinberg said that he has “more work to do” to summon up enough votes for the sugary beverage tax initiative to get it through both the full House and Senate.

The sugary beverage tax is part of Lamont’s overall tax plan and is not a stand alone bill.

“This is a winnable fight,” Steinberg said, adding that it will be helpful if Lamont continues to make the “issue part of his agenda.”

The Senate Democratic caucus will be behind closed doors all day Tuesday working on figuring out which taxes they find acceptable.