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Let Mass. Be The First State To Tax Sugary Drinks

A tax on sugar-sweetened beverages could also raise funds to fix water fountains in schools and refurbish playgrounds, write Louisa Kasdon and David Martin. Pictured: Sugary sodas. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
A tax on sugar-sweetened beverages could also raise funds to fix water fountains in schools and refurbish playgrounds, write Louisa Kasdon and David Martin. Pictured: Sugary sodas. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

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Progressive public health is in our DNA.

Right now, Massachusetts has the opportunity to become the first state in the nation to pass a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages — sodas, “sports” drinks, fruit drinks and other drinks with added sugar — and get a two-fer: funds to help our struggling budget and a huge boon to public health. It’s estimated that in year one, over $350 million could be raised by the tax, funds that could be used to fix water fountains in schools, refurbish playgrounds and create the infrastructure every community needs to live healthy lives.

Several cities have passed sugary beverage taxes in the past few years — Philadelphia, Boulder, San Francisco, Seattle — and the results have been remarkable. There have been measurable drops in the consumption of sugary drinks, a corresponding increase in water consumption, as well as a pool of tax dollars available for further public health measures.

Are sugar-sweetened beverages such villains? Probably. Research shows that over-consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages is an overwhelming contributor to costly and preventable health challenges in our state: Type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease and dental cavities among them.

At the same time, Massachusetts faces a massive shortfall in funding needed for our drinking water infrastructure. In a January report, the state auditor found that local governments will need over $7 billion to address safe drinking water needs in Massachusetts. We ask our governor and legislators to connect the dots: Addressing the first issue can help solve the second.

We ask our governor and legislators to connect the dots: Addressing the first issue can help solve the second.

When you teach children about the harms of drinking sugary beverages and the advantages of drinking water instead, they will point to the old, often grimy-looking water bubblers in their school or local park and ask, “You want me to drink from that?”

This is a terrible failure of investment in our public resources. We have let our drinking water infrastructure deteriorate and made it more difficult for people to make the healthiest choice — drinking water.

Children gather in support of a proposed sugary drink tax in the corridors of City Hall in Philadelphia, Wednesday, June 8, 2016. (Matt Rourke/AP)
Children gather in support of a proposed sugary drink tax in the corridors of City Hall in Philadelphia, Wednesday, June 8, 2016. (Matt Rourke/AP)

The health consequences of sugar-sweetened beverages are staggering. The percentage of children with Type 2 diabetes, on medication for high blood pressure and struggling with high cholesterol has been rising for decades. Pediatricians observe the emergence of new conditions related to sugar intake and obesity, causing fat to infiltrate and damage livers. This is true in every part of Massachusetts, but especially in low-income and communities of color.

The pending legislation institutes a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages designed to encourage people to choose beverages with little or no sugar added. The bill institutes no tax on beverages with less than 5 grams of sugar added; a 1 cent per ounce tax for beverages with between 5 grams and 20 grams; and 2 cents per ounce for beverages with over 20 grams of sugar. The tiered structure of the tax will discourage beverages with the massive amounts of added sugar we see today. Many 12 ounce sodas have over 50 grams of added sugar. And it will accelerate a trend we already see: beverage companies offering more low sugar options.

But equally important, revenue from the sugary drink tax could raise $368 million per year. That’s money that can be used to repair our water infrastructure and enable exercise and recreation, especially for kids. Every school, park and municipal building in Massachusetts should have drinkable water and modern water filing stations where kids and adults can have access to clean drinking water.

Making good choices is the key to good health. But to make good choices we have to have access to them. Sugary beverages have zero nutritional value. Their consumption causes increased rates of diabetes, obesity, heart disease and dental cavities, which lead to increased health costs for everyone. A well-structured state tax on sugary beverages with funds devoted to the state’s water infrastructure and better access to exercise and recreation will create an environment where health thrives and health care costs are lower for everyone.

Why shouldn’t Massachusetts be the first state in the nation to pass a statewide sugary drink tax?

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