KEYSTONE, Colo. — Some 400 Colorado health care leaders heard a call Thursday for a tax on sugared drinks as a means of reducing obesity – and raising revenues.
A tax of one cent per ounce would raise the price of a two-liter bottle by 67 cents. That could as much as double the price of a bottle.
The higher price would prompt consumers to reduce their buying by 10 to 23 percent, Yale University food expert Kelly Brownell told the Colorado Health Symposium in Keystone.
He estimated such a tax could raise $198 million in revenue in a cash-strapped state – something that could make it popular. Brownell suggested the funds be used for programs to improve health.
These would include soft drinks like Coke and Pepsi, as well as many “juice drinks” that are only partly juice. Even drinks that sound like they are healthy may contain sugar. The product Vitaminwater is the current target of a class-action suit that claims violation of consumer-protection laws because its 33 grams of sugar and 125 calories in a 20-ounce bottle offset any health benefits.
Some 19 percent of Colorado adults and 14 percent of Colorado children are obese. Medical professionals have established the correlation between soft drink consumption and obesity.
There was no formal move to launch such a tax drive at the symposium, which is an annual event sponsored by The Colorado Health Foundation. But Brownell’s suggestion was heard by leaders of the health care industry, as well as legislators.
State Sen. John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, who is at the 3-day conference, was intrigued – even though he admitted, “I drink, like, 12 Mountain Dews a day.”
Under Colorado law, he noted, any tax would have to be approved by voters.
“It might be an easier tax to pass,” especially compared to an increase in income taxes, Morse said. “It hits the poor harder, but maybe we need that, so they’re stopping consuming the soda. If you don’t want to pay the tax, don’t drink the soda.”
However, some political conservatives object to any proposals for higher taxes, citing opposition to government altering choices in foods consumers pick.
In addition, Shannon Butler, spokeswoman for the Colorado Beverage Association, said the trade group would oppose a tax increase.
“Folks are having a hard time paying for groceries as it is,” she said. The association also believes that “taxing this product isn’t going to be the solution to the obesity epidemic.” That answer is a balanced diet and the industry is working to make the calorie content of its products clear, she said.
Dr. Michael Pramenko, president of the Colorado Medical Society who is also in attendance, likened the issue to tobacco. Doctors, he noted, pleaded with patients for years to stop smoking. But that had little effect until the price of cigarettes spiked. He said similarly levying high taxies on sugar drinks could prompt consumers to cut back consumption.
Brownell, of Yale University, noted that doctors have also been imploring their patients to exercise and eat well for decades, but there’s been no significant change. If exercise isn’t working, then it is time to change the environment, he argued.
The symposium’s sponsor, the Colorado Health Foundation, has not taken a formal position on a tax on sugar drinks, said vice president Shepard Nevel. The organization does have a goal of making Colorado the healthiest state in the union and is targeting childhood obesity. Extra weight is a contributor to numerous diseases and early death.
“This is a staggering force moving us in the wrong direction,” Brownell said. “We can count the number of unnecessary lives lost in the millions.”
Brownell told his audience bluntly that “America’s children have a toxic relationship with food.” Today’s kids will live shorter lives than their parents, he said.
The National Institutes of Health found that 40 percent of the calories consumed by children aged 2 to 18 are empty calories carrying no nutritional value, Brownell said. The largest source of those calories is soft drinks and juice drinks, at 173 calories per day for the average child.
Until last year, Colorado exempted soda from the 2.9 percent state sales tax. This year the industry fought for a return to its previous exempt status, but the bill failed because it would have cut state revenues by $12 million.