The Alliance for a Healthier Vermont, a coalition of more than 30 organizations, advocated Tuesday for the implementation of a $.02-per-ounce excise tax on sugary beverages sold in the state. The group says drinks like sodas, sweetened teas, and energy drinks are full of calories and devoid of nutritional benefits.
"Sugary drinks are undeniably related to obesity," said Rachel Johnson, a nutritionist and professor at the University of Vermont. "Sugary drinks are the number-one source of calories in teenagers' diets, even beating out pizza."
The alliance believes an excise tax, imposed at the wholesale level and reflected in higher prices on store shelves, could raise $30-million a year in this state that is struggling with revenues. The funds could be used to combat costly health conditions, namely obesity, the advocates said.
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“This tax will help discourage people from drinking as many sugary beverages, and will help them make choices to drink better, healthier fluids and eat more fruits and vegetables,” said Dr. Stephen Leffler, the chief medical officer for the University of Vermont Medical Center.
Beverages in which milk is the primary ingredient would be excluded from the tax because they provide important nutrients, the Alliance for a Healthier Vermont noted. Also exempt from the tax would be zero-calorie drinks and 100 percent fruit juices, because they contain no added sugar.
Dr. Stephen Pitmon of the Vermont State Dental Society said he believes a tax would encourage consumers to pick healthier beverages such as low-fat milk or water. "I think there should be support on our side," Pitmon told New England Cable News. "This is something that can have a great health and oral health benefit to the population of Vermont."
The Alliance for a Healthier Vermont said several lawmakers are eyeing their proposals and it expects multiple formal bills to emerge this legislative session.
Opponents were quick to criticize the concept. Jay Mitiguy, a grocery distributor whose family operates the Milton-based company Dowling's, Inc., said his company would have to implement a burdensome new tracking system to manage the new taxes.
"It's going to hurt the Vermont economy," Mitiguy predicted, referencing both his company and the mom and pop retailers it serves across Vermont and into western New Hampshire and upstate New York.
At Quality Market in Barre, owner Pam Trag called the proposal an "insidious" one. "It's a hidden tax," she said.
Trag said the move could drive consumers across the state line into New Hampshire to stock up on soda and other drinks at lower prices. She said her already-tight margins on drinks would shrink even more, at a time she's facing increased costs of doing business from minimum wage increases and other operational expenses.
"I have to look to where I can cut costs," she told NECN. "And where I can cut costs is personnel."
This idea has been proposed before, but didn't have the traction it needed in past legislative sessions. Backers believe this is their year; but opponents aren't giving up the fight.
Sen. John Campbell, D-Windsor County, the Vermont Senate President Pro Tem, issued the following statement in opposition to the proposal:
“I believe very strongly in advancing policy that will help Vermonters lead healthier lives however, the proposal to tax beverages containing added sugar is not the way to address our shared goal. Taxation is not the way to encourage healthy behavior. This proposal will not only increase the cost of living for working families, it will also harm the businesses that produce these beverages and those who bottle, distribute and sell them.
“In my district, this legislation will further increase our competitive disadvantage with New Hampshire and cause more consumers to purchase the products over the border hurting grocers and small stores.
“At a time when we are tackling so many tough budget challenges, it’s critically important that we work together to pass a balanced and responsible budget as well as legislation that addresses our economic challenges.”
Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland County, and Sen. Dick Mazza, D-Chittenden and Grand Isle Counties, who owns a general store in Colchester, also voiced opposition to the idea Tuesday.