After more than 50 years, signs that soda could lose its sweet tax deal

October 22, 2019

By Keith Mahoney, Vice President of Communications and Public Affairs

Earlier this month, Boston Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham wrote a piece titled “Sugar’s day of reckoning may be here.” To that we would add, “And it’s about time!”

No soda prescriptions
in 2011, the Boston Foundation and Healthy People/Healthy Economy coalition worked with pediatricians to distribute "prescriptions" for no soda as part of the capaign to remove the tax exemption on sugar-sweetened beverages

It has been a decade since the Boston Foundation shifted its strategic health focus from improving access to healthcare to promoting healthy behaviors. Why? In part, the decision was driven by research that illustrates the spending mismatch between healthy behaviors and health care delivery.  Some 90% of American health care dollars are spent on access to health care and treatment, with just 9% going to prevention.  Yet almost 40% of an individual’s overall health is determined by diet, exercise, smoking, stress, and safety; and just 6% by access to health care—an exact inverse of our current spending priorities.

And when it comes to diet, there might be no bigger culprit in our battle with obesity in America than sugar-sweetened beverages.

Health researchers have told us for years that sugar-sweetened beverages are major contributors to obesity.  Most of the added sugar in our diets comes from soda, energy drinks and juice blends that have no nutritional value.  And there is a connection between sugar-sweetened beverages and obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and other preventable conditions. 

But believe it or not, Massachusetts tax policy actually rewards the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages.  When the state passed a sales tax in 1966, amendments were filed to exempt “necessities,” and sugar-sweetened beverages were awarded an exemption - as “food.”

Of course, in 1966, we didn’t have the growing rates of childhood obesity we have today, and we certainly didn’t fully understand the link between the consumption of soda and obesity.

We also hadn’t leaned into understanding of the dangers of smoking, to the smokers or to the children around them.

This chart illustrates the mismatch between how we spend our health care dollars, and how good health is really determined.

We hadn’t linked parental smoking to health issues in babies.

Or required seat belts.

Or child seats.

In these areas, we have learned the impact of these behaviors on children’s health. But the sugar sweetened beverage exemption remains.

The average American drinks 45 gallons of sugar-sweetened beverages a year; sugary drinks are the top calorie source in teen diets at 226 calories a day; and drinking a can or two a day increases the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes by 25%.  The odds of children becoming obese increase by 60% with each additional 12-ounce soda consumed daily.

A whopping 36% of the added sugar in our diet comes from beverages that have no nutritional value and stimulate rather than satiate appetite.  Research shows that we would be better off eating a bowl of jelly beans than drinking a soda, as the act of chewing and swallowing candy satiates hunger while drinking a soda has the opposite effect.

And Massachusetts is not exempt from the obesity epidemic. The obesity rate among low-income 2- to 4-year olds here is among the highest in the nation at 16.4%, which is 3% higher than the rate in Mississippi.  By the way, Mississippi, along with 34 other states, including the progressive paragons of Alabama and Texas, levy a sales tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.

How and what we tax is an expression of our deepest-held values, and changing our tax policy on sugar-sweetened beverages is a necessary step toward greater health for all the people of our Commonwealth.   We are excited to join with our partners as we finally renew this debate on Beacon Hill.