Would a Soda Tax Be Good for Massachusetts?

Lawmakers have proposed a new tax on sugary drinks.


Soda photo via istock.com/RapidEye

Soon, you might need some extra change when you hit the vending machine.

That’s because Massachusetts lawmakers have proposed a tax on sugary drinks such as soda. The bill, sponsored by Senator Jason Lewis, is intended to cut down on consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, which have been linked to a host of health problems.

If the bill is signed into law, Massachusetts would become the first state to implement a soda tax. Some cities, including Philadelphia and Berkeley, California, have adopted similar taxes at the local level.

The policy would impose taxes based on a drink’s sugar content. Beverages that contain five to 20 grams of sugar per 12 ounces would be taxed a cent per ounce, while beverages with 20 or more grams of sugar per 12 ounces would be taxed two cents per ounce. For example, a 12-ounce can of Pepsi, which contains 41 grams of sugar, would cost an extra $0.24.

Drinks made with zero-calorie sweeteners, unsweetened fruit juices, infant formula, and beverages used for medical purposes would be exempt.

Caroline Apovian, a professor at the Boston University School of Medicine and the director of the Nutrition and Weight Management Center at Boston Medical Center, says that sugary drinks should be regulated similarly to alcohol.

“We regulate alcohol,” she says. “We do not sell alcohol to children. We tax it and you can’t drink while you are working.”

Soda should be regulated, Apovian says, because of the toll it takes on health, contributing to higher odds of obesity and diabetes.

“There is absolutely no nutritional value to sugar-sweetened beverages whatsoever,” Apovian says. “Your brain doesn’t register those calories, because it’s liquid. You overeat that day by whatever those calories were.”

According to the CDC, roughly half of American adults consume at least one sugary drink per day. Consumption is slowing, however, with more and more people choosing sugar-free drinks such as seltzer. And when a soda tax passed in Berkeley, consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages dropped there by 21 percent, according to the American Public Health Association.

Despite such data, the bill does not have universal support in Massachusetts.

Gov. Charlie Baker, for one, said last week that the bill would have a disproportionate effect on low-income families.

“I don’t think we should be raising taxes and I’ve said that before, especially not a tax that basically hits low-income people a lot harder than it hits everybody else,” Baker said.

Representatives from the Massachusetts Beverage Association, which represents the state’s soft drink industry, echoed Baker.

“There are much better ways to fund programs important to our communities than a tax that threatens jobs, hurts our local businesses, and hits working-class families the hardest,” representatives said in a statement.

But Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, says the tax could actually help local businesses.

“One of the biggest single costs [businesses] have is their healthcare costs,” he explains. “The single biggest driver of poor health in the country is poor diet. There are about 50,000 deaths per year from soda. This is a major driver of healthcare costs, which is a major drag on companies.”

Mozaffarian adds that the tax could also help lower-income families, not harm them. Health benefits aside, he notes that dissuading people from drinking soda, and pushing them to drink water instead, would help individuals save money.

“It’s a myth that this is harmful or somehow not fair to low-income people. This would benefit them the most,” Mozaffarian says. “If industry was marketing unsafe television or unsafe cars or unsafe cellphones to the poor and purposefully hurting them, the government would actually make it illegal. The government isn’t going to do that for sugary drinks, so I think taxing them is a good first step.”

The bill is tentatively scheduled for a hearing on June 20.