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Mass. Soda + Candy Tax Would Raise Estimated $57M in Revenue

Friday, January 31, 2014


The state's estimate of new revenue from taxing soda and candy is up $4 million this year.

Soft drinks and sweets aren't currently taxed because they are considered food in the Bay State.

In Gov. Deval Patrick's budget proposal for fiscal year 2015, revenue from removing that exemption and including the items under the state's 6.25 percent sales tax is pegged at $57 million. That forecasted revenue is higher than the same proposal last year.

In the most recent available survey by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), soda, energy, and sports drinks were the single largest caloric source for teens and adults between the ages of 14 to 30.

Massachusetts' Healthy People/Healthy Economy Coalition, a group representing health care, prevention, business and civic leaders led by the Boston Foundation and New England Healthcare Institute (NEHI), has applauded the move.

In Worcester, one of five domains in the greater region's Community Health Improvement Plan (CHIP) is health eating/active living.

“Healthy living and improved nutrition is one area where I think we've made great strides” in the year since the plan was developed, said Michael P. Hirsh, the city's acting commissioner of public health.

According to a 2011 youth survey that included Worcester Public Schools and the eight surrounding contiguous school districts, “up to 25 percent of students entering our public schools ... would be considered in the overweight category, and 20 percent would be in the obese category,” Hirsh said. “So it's an alarming finding.”

An updated youth survey and a one-year evaluation of the health improvement plan are planned this year according to the city health commissioner.

“We see decreasing consumption of sugary drinks as a key method to increase nutrition and decrease childhood tooth decay,” said Derek Brindisi, director of Worcester's public health division and head of the Central Mass Regional Public Health Alliance. “After one year of implementation of the CHIP, we specifically refocused a strategy around decreasing consumption of sugary drinks.”

Would removing the exemption decrease consumption?

“Removing the tax exemption on soda and candy is an important way to address childhood obesity and to make Worcester and the entire state healthier,” according to Maddie Ribble, director of policy and communications for the Massachusetts Public Health Association. “There is no reason these unhealthy products should enjoy a special tax exemption. We should be taking action to reduce consumption of these products, and the revenue raised can be channeled toward obesity prevention initiatives.”

Some don't see the tax making a big difference on consumption, however.

“The sales tax is actually minor,” relatively speaking, according to J. Justin Wilson, a senior research analyst at the Center for Consumer Freedom. “To actually decrease consumption, you'd need (something on the order of) nickels and dimes before people actually feel the effect.”

“Generally speaking, my thought is the sales tax shouldn't be used for the purposes of social engineering.”

Wilson said in large part, the impetus of removing such tax exemptions was usually a revenue consideration.

Tom Hubbard, NEHI's vice president of policy research, agreed the impact on consumption would be fairly negligible. “What the governor is proposing, again, to do is to close a current exemption,” Hubbard noted. “What he's not trying to do is propose a (new tax).”

Hubbard said the argument was “it ought to be done as a simple public health measure.”

“I certainly applaud the governor's concern about the overweight and obesity (problem) and it is certainly a very vexing one,” said Hirsh. “We're really focused on a lot of education in the school-aged kids, to improve their knowledge and inform their nutritional choices” with Worcester's community health plan, he continued.

“When they're informed, kids are always surprising me with the types of choices they make.”

Important that new revenue targets health and wellness

While the move to apply the sales tax to candy and soda is framed as an investment in health, the more important consideration may be where that tax revenue goes. Both Patrick's proposal and a bill supported by the Healthy People/Healthy Economy Coalition would target candy and soda tax revenue for health programs.

Hubbard said his coalition sought to target those funds for school-based physical activity programs.

Hirsh echoed the importance of targeting nutrition programs as opposed to sending the revenue into general funds, similar to tobacco taxes.

Worcester was recently the recipient of a grant from the state's Health and Prevention Trust Fund, which will go toward community-based partners working on health and wellness initiatives in the city. Worcester’s partnership was one of nine across the state designated this past Tuesday to receive funds, which will total $250,000 during the first phase and then between $900,000 and $1.5 million for each of the next three years.

Patrick's proposal to eliminate the tax exemption for soda and candy — included in each of his previous seven budget plans — has not been acted on by lawmakers before, partly because it has been painted as a new revenue increase. Hubbard points to recent bigger debates in the Legislature like the gas tax.

This month, the governor proposed a total $1.1 billion increase in funding for health care programs, including state employee and retiree insurance, MassHealth, Medicaid, and insurance subsidies.

Mass. in the minority to not tax soda

Massachusetts is one of only 16 states that doesn't currently tax soda.

According to the NIH, sugar-sweetened beverages including soda, energy, and sports drinks and candy comprised 7.5 percent of total energy intake. For teenagers between the ages of 14 and 18, that percentage jumps to 12 percent of their total caloric intake.

But those numbers are dated, coming from the 2005-06 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. After decades of increases, there has been some decline recently in soda consumption according to national industry groups.

“Working with our partners, including UMass Memorial and the Worcester Food and Active Living Policy Council, we’re increasing healthy options in the community to make eating and drinking healthier the easier and more cost-effective choice,” Brindisi said.

“Through our Healthy Corner Store Initiative we’re working with convenience store owners to increase healthy options and to be a source of healthy food for when students stop in on their way to or from school. Too often you see students walking in to school with Cheetos and Coke as breakfast, simply because there are no other options.”


Related Slideshow: Massachusetts Emergency Care Report Card

The American College of Emergency Physicians released America's Emergency Care Environment report for 2014 in January, issuing report cards for each state in the U.S. Massachusetts ranked second overall - see the Bay State's report card grades and highlights in the slides below.

Prev Next

Access to Emergency Care Grades

2014 Grade: B

2014 National Rank: 4

2009 Grade: B

2009 National Rank: 3

Prev Next

Access to Emergency Care Highlights

* Board-certified emergency physicians per 100,000 population: 14.2

* Emergency physicians per 100,000 population: 19.7

* Neurosurgeons per 100,000 population: 2.6

* Orthopedists and hand surgeon specialists per 100,000 population: 12.7

* Plastic surgeons per 100,000 population: 3.3

Prev Next

Quality + Patient Safety Environment Grades

2014 Grade: B+

2014 National Rank: 5

2009 Grade: A

2009 National Rank: 6

Prev Next

Quality + Safety Environment Highlights

* Funding for quality improvement within the EMS system: No

* Funded state EMS medical director: Yes

* Emergency medicine residents per 1 million population: 33.1

* Adverse event reporting required: Yes

* Percent of counties with E-911 capability: 100%

Prev Next

Medical Liability Grades

2014 Grade: D-

2014 National Rank: 40

2009 Grade: D

2009 National Rank: 33

Prev Next

Medical Liability Highlights

* Lawyers per 100,000 population: 24.5

* Lawyers per physician: 0.5

* Lawyers per emergency physician: 12.4

* Malpractice award payments per 100,000 population: 1.4

* Average malpractice award payments: $519,991

Prev Next

Public Health + Injury Prevention Grades

2014 Grade: A

2014 National Rank: 1

2009 Grade: A

2009 National Rank: 1

Prev Next

Public Health + Injury Prevention Highlights

* Traffic fatalities per 100,000 population: 3.8

* Bicyclist fatalities per 100,000 population: 1.9

* Pedestrian fatalities per 100,000 population: 2.1

* Percent of traffic fatalities alcohol related: 39%

* Front occupant restraint use: 73.2%

Prev Next

Disaster Preparedness Grades

2014 Grade: C

2014 National Rank: 20

2009 Grade: B

2009 National Rank: 19

Prev Next

Disaster Preparedness Highlights

* Per capita federal disaster preparedness funds: $6.54

* ESF-8 plan shared with all EMS and essential hospital personnel: Yes

* Emergency physician input into the state planning process: Yes

* Drills, exercises conducted with hospital personnel, equipment, facilities per hospital: 0.2

* Public health and emergency physician input during ESF-8 response: Yes


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