Governor Peter Shumlin says he will not support a plan to tax sugar sweetened beverages as a way to help reduce obesity in the state. But backers of the tax say the proposal is needed because Vermont is facing an obesity epidemic.
For the fourth year in a row, Vermont has been named the healthiest state in the country. The ranking is based on more than a dozen indicators including smoking rates, the incidence of binge drinking, cases of infectious disease, the number of people who have health care and violent crime rates.
The report also shows that the number of obese people in Vermont has tripled in the last 20 years.
A coalition of health care and consumer groups is backing a penny per ounce tax on sugar sweetened beverages to discourage the consumption of these drinks. It’s estimated that the tax would raise roughly $28 million for a variety of health and nutrition programs. But the Governor doesn’t support this approach.
"I believe that the best way you can deal with questions of obesity is through education and ensuring that we get to both kids and parents to give them the information that they need to make healthy choices," Shumlin says. "We can make great progress there and that’s where I’d start."
Tina Zuk of the American Heart Association is a spokesperson for the coalition supporting the tax. She says more than $180 million in health care costs can be attributed to these beverages and she says the problem needs a lot more than education.
"But it’s not enough and we’ve learned from our history with tobacco taxes and smoking in Vermont that you need to have education at the same time you have a significant price increase on the product because that helps deter consumption," Zuk says.
Shumlin says he also opposes the tax because he says it will have the greatest impact on low income Vermonters.
"It’s a very regressive tax and it tends to ask those who can least afford it to pay the most," he says.
But Zuk points out that the Vermont Low Income Advocacy Council supports the tax because the plan would provide subsidies for fresh food products.
"At a time we’re raising the price on a food that’s not healthy for you we’d be lowering the price of foods that are healthy that they might not be able to afford," Zuk says.
Zuk says money from the tax could also be used to provide state subsidies for participants in the Catamount Health Care program who will experience higher out of pocket expenses when the state’s health care exchange opens in 2014.