Sugary drink tax benefits and detriments argued to lawmakers

Sugary drink tax benefits and detriments argued to lawmakers

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - More than 57 percent of the people in Hawaii are obese or overweight.  It is an alarming number according to the State Department of Health.

So do sugary drinks contribute to the weight problems?  Several doctors say yes and have urged lawmakers to pass the soda tax that would charge a penny per ounce of sugary drinks. That is not just soda, but juices, teas, sports drinks and many others.

"This is going to be the first generation where our children do not survive their parents. That is a fact," said Dr. Vija Sehgal, Pediatrician, Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center. "We are already seeing children at the age of 12, 13, 14, 15 developing diabetes. I saw an 8 year old the other day that weighed 180 pounds."

"Rather than a fiscal cliff I suspect we are heading toward a physical health cliff," said Stacy Evensen, Healthy Communities Hawaii.

"It's really costing our state a lot of money. If we think about all the money we put into health care, to unemployment, sick leave all these things are affected by obesity and this is becoming one of the most major health problems we have," said Jay Maddock, Ph.D., Professor of Public Health, UH Manoa.

"Public health decisions like this make a far more important course of change than sometimes the doctor/patient relationship," said Dr. Kalani Brady, Professor, John A. Burns School of Medicine.

"We understand that the sugar sweetened sugar sweetened beverage fee won't be the cure all but it will make all of us think twice," said Dr. May Okihiro, Hawaii Initiative for Childhood Obesity Research and Education, John A. Burns School of Medicine.

Opponents say sugary drinks are an easy target but fatty foods and lack of exercise are also to blame.

So how much would a penny per ounce cost?  Take a case of Aloha Maid juice that costs $7.79.  All the taxes and fees will add up to $4.69 raising the total cost of that juice to $12.48. That is nearly 40 percent in fees and taxes.

"I think one of the goals of this bill is the consumption of soda be reduced by 8-10 percent. If we lose 8-10 percent of our volume surely we are going to shut down.  I don't want to be the one to tell 45 employees that we are going to lose our jobs," said Jeff Mathijssen, Ball Corporation, Metal Beverage Packaging Division Plant Manager.

"It is certainly unconscionable," said Roger Morey, Hawaii Restaurant Association, while testifying to lawmakers. "If this bill were to become law you would be sending the wrong message to people who are obese. You would be saying loudly and clearly stop drinking sugary drinks and you're safe. You ain't going to be safe."

The measure has failed in the past thanks in part to the No Hawaii Beverage Tax coalition made up of 2,300 people and 340 businesses who think the tax is a bad idea.

"Taxing items like juice, teas, sports drinks, sodas and other beverages is a regressive policy that has the greatest impact on those who can least afford it: low- to middle-income families, the elderly and those living on fixed incomes," said Paul Ah Cook, president of Paradise Beverages, in a written statement.  "Furthermore, it is not the broad approach we are all seeking as we fight the obesity issue.  Our coalition supports a comprehensive program that includes healthy eating, plenty of exercise and reduction of calories-not a laser beam approach of targeting one industry with a hefty tax."

However the soda tax is one of Governor Neil Abercrombie's top priorities this year.

The $37 million a year is taxes would go to obesity prevention programs to try and cut down the $470 million a year spent on obesity related medical costs.

"If we don't get control of the diabetes and obesity problem, we're going to see budget busting numbers and figures going forward 10, 15 and 20 years and our kids are going to be paying those taxes," said State Senator Josh Green, (D) Kona, Ka'u, who is also an emergency room physician.  "If we all work together we're going to get there and we'll see the obesity rates fall, we'll see the diabetes rates fall but it won't happen without some significant discussion on this kind of issue."

It's a lot to swallow.  Lawmakers expect to make a decision soon that will no doubt leave a bad taste for one side or the other.

To read more about the sugary drink tax click here.

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