BOSTON — Health advocates are pushing for a new tax on sugary drinks as a way to reduce consumption of liquid calories that get blamed for medical problems such as obesity and diabetes.
On Beacon Hill, a proposal backed by about three-dozen lawmakers would impose an excise tax on sugary drinks, with the levy increasing along with the sugar content.
Proponents say too many children and families suffer from chronic diseases, including Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer and tooth decay, that they blame, in part, on diets laden with sugar.
"We want to encourage people to make healthier choices," said Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, one of the bill's sponsors. "If people want to continue to drink these kinds of beverages, that's fine, but we're going to put a tax on it so that when you get sick from it at some point in your life, we'll be able to take care of you."
Under the measure, sodas, teas and other beverages with 7.5 grams of sugar or less per 12 fluid ounces would not be taxed. Those with 30 grams of sugar or more per 12 fluid ounces would be taxed at a rate of 2 cents per ounce. Beverages that fall in between would be taxed at 1 cent per ounce. Popular soft drinks such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Dr. Pepper are well above the 30-gram threshold.
Money from the new tax would go into a fund used to enforce the new rules and to fund various children's health and nutrition programs.
Tax opponents say it's unnecessary and will hurt stores, supermarkets and beverage producers, costing jobs while inflicting financial harm on consumers.
"We believe there's a better way to get people to address obesity than with a soda tax," said Steven Boksanski, executive director of the Massachusetts Beverage Association. "It really comes down to education about nutrition and physical activity."
'Lots of choices'
Bokanski said the industry has been responding to consumer concerns about sugar-loaded drinks by offering healthier alternatives.
"There's more low-calorie or no-calorie products on the shelves than at anytime before," he said. "Part of it is market forces, part of it is a recognition that it's the right thing to do."
Tax proponents have filed similar proposals in the recent past, but lawmakers didn't take up the bills.
A Harvard School of Public Health study estimated a sugar tax could raise $368 million annually for the state.
Four states — Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and, more recently, Arkansas — have similar taxes, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Dozens of others apply local sales taxes to at least some soda purchases.
Former Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick sought unsuccessfully to apply the state's 6.25 percent sales tax to candy and soda, but the move faced pushback from lawmakers.
It's not clear whether Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, will support the measure if it reaches his desk. In the past, he has expressed skepticism about a sugar tax. Still, Baker proposed raising the tax on cigarettes — already among the country's highest — as part of his preliminary budget proposal for the next fiscal year.
Some states, including Arizona, Michigan, California and Washington, have gone in the opposite direction by passing legislation or referendums that ban local taxes on drinks.
Medical experts say children consume too much sugar, averaging about 17 percent of their caloric intake, and that creates myriad health and social impacts.
Children from minority and low-income communities are disproportionately affected by ready access to sugary beverages, advocates say.
Advocates on either side of the issue cite recent studies with different conclusions on the effectiveness of a sugar tax on improving overall public health.
One report, by Healthy Food America, said sugary drink sales dropped 10 percent one year after Berkeley, California, adopted such a tax.
But the American Beverage Association says other research, including a recent study of Philadelphia’s soda tax, found consumers going outside the city to avoid the tax.
Locally the beverage industry says an excise tax could push even more sales across the New Hampshire border.
Efforts to cut down on the consumption of sugary drinks are endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Heart Association. Two weeks ago the groups issued a joint statement calling for higher prices, through taxes, to reduce consumption of the beverages.
"For children, the biggest source of added sugars often is not what they eat, it’s what they drink," said Dr. Natalie Muth, a pediatrician and lead author of the policy statement.
"On average, children are consuming over 30 gallons of sugary drinks every year," she said. "This is enough to fill a bathtub, and it doesn’t even include added sugars from food."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for The Salem News and its sister newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com.
Drink Sugar (grams) Proposed tax
Coca-Cola (12 oz) 39g 24 cents
Pepsi (12 oz) 41g 24 cents
Dr. Pepper (12 oz) 40g 24 cents
Diet Coke (12 oz) 0g 0
Red Bull (12 oz) 37g 24 cents
Gatorade Blue (20 oz) 34g 40 cents
Honest T peach (16.9 oz) 25g 25 cents