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R.I. legislators propose tax on sugary beverages

Tax seeks to improve nutrition, lower health care costs for R.I. communities

Rhode Island legislators proposed a pair of bills that would impose a 1.5-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary beverages such as non-diet soda, sports drinks and fruit drinks with added sugars. The revenue from the tax would go toward providing a 50 percent discount on fruits and vegetables to those who qualify for benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Bill H5715, sponsored by State Representative Jean Philippe Barros, and Bill S0327, sponsored by State Senator Valarie Lawson, fall under the new “Nourish RI” campaign. Proposed in February 2021, the campaign seeks to improve nutrition, encourage job growth, lower health care costs and create equity across the state, according to the Rhode Island Public Health Institute's website.

If passed, Rhode Island’s statewide program would be the first of its kind in the nation. Currently, only eight cities across the country — Seattle, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Boulder, Colorado and the California cities of Albany, Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco — have taxes on sugary beverages in place. Globally, 42 countries have nationwide sugary beverage taxes.

“Each of these cities has seen significant success with the implementation of these taxes. For example, in Berkeley, water sales increased by 15.6 percent and soda sales decreased by 9.6 percent,” said Philip Chan, a consultant medical director at the Rhode Island Department of Health and associate professor of medicine and behavioral and social sciences. Philadelphia was able to raise nearly $260 million, which was reinvested in the community for childhood education programs and parks for youth activities, Chan added. 

Rhode Island is currently experiencing a hunger crisis, with one in four families facing food insecurity rates that are “higher now than in the Great Depression,” Amy Nunn, executive director of the RIPHI and professor of behavioral and social sciences and medicine, told The Herald.

Through the bills, recipients of SNAP benefits would also receive a 50 percent discount on fruits and vegetables to incentivize healthier purchasing and alleviate some of the food insecurity that RI families face.

“We have the opportunity in Rhode Island to address our hunger crisis head-on and reinvest back into our population that is struggling to get enough food to feed their families and children,” Chan said.

A similar program that RIPHI runs, Food on the Move, offers SNAP beneficiaries access to a discounted mobile produce market.

“We have built the scientific evidence base for that approach and know that when you make produce more accessible and affordable, people buy and consume more of it,” Nunn said.

Sugary beverages, including juice products, have few redeeming health benefits, according to Mary Flynn, associate professor of medicine. Additionally, high consumption of sugary beverages make them particularly detrimental to community health.

“Some studies show that we are most capable of gaining weight when we drink calories compared to chewing them,” Flynn said. Increasing accessibility to healthy alternatives through creating new water bottle filling stations, for example, could potentially help reduce consumption of sugary beverages, Flynn added.

Additionally, diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, obesity and dental cavities associated with sugary beverage consumption disproportionately burden lower-income communities and minority groups.

“Sugary drinks are a key driver of health inequities. The prevalence of diabetes among people with incomes less than 100 percent of the federal poverty level is twice that observed among people with incomes between 400 to 499 percent of the FPL,” Chan said.

Sugary beverage companies also target lower-income communities through cheap prices, advertising and widespread accessibility.

“The beverage industry deliberately and intentionally encourages unnecessary consumption of sugary beverages. They target children in ways that are unethical (and) are akin to tobacco and vaping companies,” Nunn said.

The bills have seen significant pushback from the beverage industry, as members of non-diet soda and juice companies testified against the tax at House Finance Committee meetings May 13 and May 17. Those in the beverage industry argued that the tax would eliminate jobs and put businesses in jeopardy if customers ended up shopping elsewhere to purchase sugary beverages at lower prices.

“There is a small business exemption for sugary drinks produced by a manufacturer with worldwide gross income of less than $2 million … which helps to protect Rhode Island’s smaller craft producers,” Chan said.

Those in support of the bill argue that any drop in sugary beverage purchases cannot entirely be attributed to a tax, but also an increase in consumer awareness about the detrimental nutritional effects of these beverages.

People are worried about paying taxes, but currently their tax dollars are being used to treat people with chronic diseases associated with consumption of these sugary beverages,” Chan said. “It’s the diabetes and heart disease that are costing the taxpayer money.”

The bill has been heard by both sides of the legislature, but has yet to be brought to the floor for a vote.

“We’re confident that if this bill were brought to the floor it would probably pass, but they’ve got to bring it to the floor, and that requires pressure from constituents on legislators,” Nunn said. 

Moving forward, legislators hope that community members will see the positive change the bill could represent for Rhode Island. For the bill to succeed in both the state legislature and in local communities, Nunn said, “we really need a groundswell of community support.”



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