A proposed “sugar tax” on sweetened drinks and candy was praised by health advocates but slammed by representatives of the food and beverage industry at a public hearing this week.
The bill, introduced by Rep. Juan Candelaria, D-New Haven, would impose a tax of 1 cent per ounce on soft drinks — including sweetened teas, energy drinks and soda — and candies that are high in sugar and calories.
It was among various bills discussed at a Committee on Children public hearing Tuesday at the Legislative Office Building. While the tax would affect consumers of all ages, sugary drinks and foods often are marketed to children.
The so-called sugar tax would help decrease state residents’ consumption of sugary drinks and foods, which would reduce rates of obesity and other related health issues such as heart disease and diabetes, said Roberta Friedman, director of public policy at the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at the University of Connecticut.
“We are drinking these things to no end and they are nothing but empty calories,” she testified. “The health implications are very, very serious. The science is a slam-dunk on this: There is an absolute connection between the consumption of sugary beverages and obesity and weight gain.”
Research has shown that a 10 percent price increase on sugary beverages can lead to an 8 percent to 10 percent decrease in consumption, she said.
The American Heart Association also supports creating the tax, believing it could be the single most effective way to decrease consumption, said John Bailey, state director of government relations for the group.
The bill garnered strong opposition from some, including the Connecticut Food Association, which represents grocery stores in the state.
The group has “major concerns” about the bill, particularly the ambiguity of what products will be taxed, said President Stan Sorkin. The legislation does not specify what will be considered “candy,” for instance, he said.
The tax would eat into grocers’ profits which would, in turn, cause them to reduce workers’ hours and face potential financial hardships, he said.
“The Connecticut consumer is intelligent enough to make their own decisions,” he said, predicting a “black market” will develop for sugary drinks and snacks if the bill passes.
There is no evidence that a sugar tax will actually decrease consumption, said Kevin Dietly, an economic consultant for the American Beverage Association who also testified in opposition to the bill.
Lawmakers may want a “silver bullet to solve a very complicated problem” but the tax would merely be a revenue generator and not have health implications, he said.
The tax also would disproportionately affect middle- and low-income families, he said.
The state chapter of the New England Convenience Store Association also opposes the bill.
Several members of the Committee on Children had questions for those who testified. State Rep. Melissa Ziobron, R-Colchester, wanted to know why the tax focuses on drinks and snacks and doesn’t extend to sugary cereals.
Bailey from the American Heart Association said targeting sugar-laden drinks and snacks would have the biggest impact, as they typically add the most sugar to children’s diets.
Sen. Mike Bocchino, R-Greenwich, wondered whether other measures would be more effective than a tax, such as placing age restrictions on who can buy sugary foods and drinks. “Why are we going right to the tax?” he asked.
Bailey responded: “We’re not trying to dictate what someone chooses. We’re just trying to make the healthier choice the easier choice.”
Under the bill, money raised from the tax would go to childhood obesity prevention efforts, municipalities, and the Governor’s Scholarship program. Several committee members wondered whether all revenue generated ought to go to obesity prevention measures.
If the bill becomes law, Connecticut would be the first state in the nation to adopt a “sugar tax,” though other states are considering it.
Among the other bills discussed at Tuesday’s hearing was one that aims to eliminate the sales tax on baby diapers. That bill is being spearheaded by Rep. Kelly Luxenberg, D-Manchester, and Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly.
Baby diapers, both cloth and disposable, are subject to Connecticut’s 6.35 percent sales tax because they are considered clothing under the law. Adult diapers, however, are included in a tax exemption for certain medical supplies.
“Diapers are a basic need, necessary for the health of children and their families,” testified Alison Weir, director of programs and policy for the National Diaper Bank Network. The nonprofit connects low-income families in need with diapers.
“Eliminating the sales tax on diapers will likely help all families better support their children’s needs,” she testified.
Seven states exempt diapers from their sales tax, she said, while three states — including Connecticut — exempt adult diapers but not baby diapers.