A statewide campaign has been launched to build support for a plan to tax sugar-sweetened beverages including soda and energy drinks.
Supporters say the tax is needed to discourage Vermonters from consuming these beverages. But opponents say it's the heavy hand of government trying to influence personal behavior.
A coalition of 30 health and consumer groups is urging lawmakers to pass a tax that would significantly increase the cost of all sugar sweetened beverages. A 2-cent per ounce tax would be imposed. For example, a 20-ounce soda would have a 40 cent tax.
It's estimated that the tax would raise around $30 million a year, and the new revenue would be used for health care programs and to subsidize healthy food for low income Vermonters.
"Sugar consumption is a major, major factor in obesity,” says Dr. Stephen Leffler, the chief medical officer at the University of Vermont Medical Center. “And there's sugar in many drinks that people don't even recognize.”
Dr. Rachel Johnson, a professor of nutrition at UVM, says the average person consumes 45 gallons of sugary drinks a year.
"Two out of three adults and one out of three children in Vermont are overweight or obese, and Vermont spends an estimated $202 million a year treating obesity related health conditions,” Johnson says.
Backers of the tax were unable to convince lawmakers last year to pass the plan. Anthony Iarrapino, campaign director at Alliance for a Healthier Vermont, the coalition supporting the tax, and he says this year is different.
"The governor has put health care reform on the table this year. That is a big difference,” Iarropino says. “The governor has opened the door to revenue this year and many members of the Legislature we're speaking to have opened the door to revenue. And if we're going to talk about raising money and we're going to talk about reforming health care, a sugary drink tax is in the sweet spot."
Jim Harrison, the director of the Vermont Retail and Grocers Association, opposes the tax, in part because he says it will hurt the sale of these drinks in communities along the New Hampshire border.
"No other state in the country has this type of tax on beverage products,” Harrison says. “This is huge. Make a 2-liter bottle [have] a $1.30 additional tax?"
Harrison says he supports educational programs to alert consumers about the health problems associated with sugary drinks, but he doesn't want the state to mandate personal behavior.
"We can all agree or disagree on what food is best for you, but that's for us as consumers to make those decisions, not for somebody in Montpelier to say, ‘We think we'd like to discourage this and out a tax on it,’” he says. “That's just coming from the top down."
Last year, the House Ways and Means committee voted 6-5 to reject the tax. Committee chairperson Janet Ancel says she supports the plan, but she says its future is in doubt.
"Whatever the need is in the health care system … this seems like a reasonable place to raise the money. It's an uphill battle in this committee,” Ancel says.
Meanwhile, Senate President John Campbell says he'll oppose the sugary drink tax because it will increase the cost of living for working families and he argues that taxation is not the way to encourage healthier behavior.