Jack Kramer / ctnewsjunkie photo
Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport (Jack Kramer / ctnewsjunkie photo)

HARTFORD, CT — The legislature’s chief advocate for a tax on sweetened beverages is pushing the initiative as a broader behavioral health care agenda rather than a money grab for the cash-starved state.

Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, and other advocates for the tax on sugary beverages held a press conference Tuesday at the Legislative Office Building to talk about why they want Connecticut to become the first state in the nation to adopt such a tax.

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Gov. Ned Lamont’s budget proposed a 1.5-cent-per-ounce tax on sweetened beverages. That amounts to about 18 cents on a 12 ounce can, $2.16 on a 12-pack of soda, or a $1.92 tax on a gallon jug of iced tea.

“I see this as a behavior changer,” Steinberg, co-chair of the Public Health Committee, said. “I am not concentrated on the taxes.”

Lamont’s budget estimates that the tax will bring in $163.1 million in 2021, the first year the tax would be implemented.

In the past, lawmakers have debated a one-cent-per-ounce excise tax on sugary beverages, including sodas, juices, and sports drinks. And like past proposals it would not apply to flavored milk or 100% juice.

Since 2008, 55 proposals to tax sugary drinks have been defeated across the country.

Steinberg said the sugar beverage tax falls right in line with a bill — which has bipartisan support — to raise the age for tobacco and vaping products from the current age of 18 to 21.

Steinberg acknowledged that the sugary beverage tax initiative has a tougher road to climb to become law than the tobacco bill because it has opposition not only from the American Beverage Association but also from within the legislature.

Opponents of the sugary beverage tax include the Progressive Caucus, whose members argue the tax is regressive and will disproportionately impact working- and middle-class families, especially in the cities where healthy grocery options aren’t as readily available as they are in more affluent suburbs.

“I know there is lots of talk about regressivity,” Steinberg said, but he argued that the tax won’t have as big an impact “if people change their behavior.”

Supporting Steinberg on that point was Maritza Bond, health director for the city of Bridgeport.

“Bridgeport has the highest obesity rates in Connecticut,” Bond said, “and sugary drinks are one of the single largest reasons.”

She said there are small stores on every street corner in Bridgeport that sell unhealthy sugary drinks to city residents.

Also speaking in support was Dr. Sandra Carbonari, a Waterbury pediatrician.

“One-quarter of children drink a 12-ounce sugary beverage day,” Carbonari said. “And teens are even more likely to drink the beverages.”

Jack Kramer / ctnewsjunkie photo
Dr. Sandra Carbonari (Jack Kramer / ctnewsjunkie photo)

Carbonari added that the percentages of sugary drink users goes higher when you factor in race.

“The health problems this brings cannot be solved in a pediatrician’s office,” she said, adding that besides the often-stated symptoms such as obesity and diabetes, there are issues such as dental decay.

According to most recent statistics, 31.7% of Connecticut kindergartners and third graders, as well as 26.2% of high school students, are not at a healthy weight.

Scientists are also reporting that while smoking has been the No. 1 preventable cause of cancer for decades and still kills over 500,000 people annually in the US, obesity is poised to take over the top spot, according to the Washington Post.

“Being obese and overweight — long implicated in heart disease and diabetes — has been associated in recent years with an increased risk of getting at least 13 types of cancer, including stomach, pancreatic, colorectal and liver malignancies, as well as postmenopausal breast cancer,” the Post reported.

The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that children and teens consume fewer than 10% of calories from added sugars. But data show that children and teens now consume 17% of their calories from added sugars — nearly half of which comes from drinks alone.

Sugary-drink consumption is directly linked to expensive, chronic illnesses such as Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. People who drink sugary drinks regularly — one to two cans a day or more —have a 26% greater risk of developing Type 2 diabetes than those who rarely have such drinks.

As far as the American Beverage Association, Steinberg argued that the industry has seen changes coming and has already moved toward a plan of selling more and more beverages with zero sugar.

The American Beverage Association concedes that point, but a spokesman for the industry, William Dermondy, stated: “There are also better ways to fund budget priorities without raising taxes on people who can least afford it.”

Steinberg conceded one other problem area for proponents is that cynics have a hard time believing the pitch that money raised from the taxes will be used to fund programs to educate people on health issues and not funneled into the general fund to pay for operations, which is what has happened with cigarette taxes over the past few years.

Steinberg said that he has “more work to do” to summon up enough votes for the sugary beverage tax initiative to get it through both the full House and Senate.

The sugary beverage tax is part of Lamont’s overall tax plan and is not a stand alone bill.

“This is a winnable fight,” Steinberg said, adding that it will be helpful if Lamont continues to make the “issue part of his agenda.”

The Senate Democratic caucus will be behind closed doors all day Tuesday working on figuring out which taxes they find acceptable.