A Healthy Blog

Massachusetts health care — wonky, with a healthy dose of reality

A Sweet Tax Idea

A Sweet Tax Idea

September 18, 2009

As we get closer to the October 15 deadline for the possibility of another round of mid-year "9C" budget cuts, which could further reduce health programs, a new study should resurrect an important revenue proposal made by Governor Patrick earlier this year.

The study in the New England Journal of Medicine looks at the health and fiscal benefits of imposing an excise tax on sweetened sodas and other beverages. Earlier, the Governor proposed eliminating the sales tax exemption on candy and sweetened soda. This change would generate approximately $55 million in revenue, which would be earmarked to a wellness fund to support health programs. (See this WBUR story on the study, too)

The tax would affect caloric soft drinks, energy drinks, sports drinks, juices and iced teas. Diet and sugar free sodas would be exempt from the tax, the goal of which would be to curb the obesity epidemic much in the same way the tobacco taxes have helped contribute to a decline in smoking.

U.S. Trends in Per Capita Calories from Beverages. Source: NEJM

U.S. Trends in Per Capita Calories from Beverages. Source: NEJM

The study found that sweetened beverage consumption is up, and that they contribute measurably to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. The authors remind us that "medical costs for overweight and obesity alone are estimated to be $147 billion — or 9.1% of U.S. health care expenditures — with half these costs paid for publicly through the Medicare and Medicaid programs." They explore the economic rationale for a tax increase, and conclude that a tax increase would have substantial health and economic benefits, in addition to the revenue being available for health programs.

As advocates opposed to further cuts in health programs, we need to support balanced revenue options that match our advocacy for spending. It's time to reopen the debate on soda taxes and other options that could help the state and improve health.
-Caitlin Bethlahmy and Brian Rosman