The Charleston Gazette-Mail
Several health-related organizations in West Virginia plan to lobby the state Legislature this year for an increase in the state’s sugary drink tax.
Local chapters of the American Heart Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, West Virginians for Affordable Health Care and others plan to ask lawmakers for a tax increase of at least 1 cent per ounce on beverages such as soft drinks, energy drinks and fruit juice with added sugar, said Christine Compton, government relations manager for the West Virginia chapter of the American Heart Association.
The legislation hasn’t been drafted yet. As of now, the proposal would not include diet drinks, but that could change, she said.
Proponents of the “A Few Cents Makes Sense” campaign say the point is to reduce the consumption of sugary drinks in West Virginia.
“One of the things we’ve learned over the years, especially from tobacco taxes, we know when prices goes up consumption goes down, as long as it’s a significant increase,” she said.
A price increase of 10 percent reduces consumption by 12 percent, she said.
West Virginia has long had a history of obesity and poor health outcomes. In 2016, West Virginia tied with Alabama and Mississippi to have the second highest obesity rates in the country, according to The State of Obesity, a project sponsored by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. More than 35 percent (35.6 percent) of state residents were obese in 2016, according to the rankings. Only Louisiana, with 36.2 percent, had a higher obesity rate.
Many of West Virginia’s children also have early signs of obesity. According to a study released last month by CDC researcher David Freeman, the number of high weight-to-length infants in West Virginia’s WIC program increased two points from 2010 to 2014 while the country’s overall rate declined two points. Having a high weight for length is an indicator for potential future obesity.
Dr. Jamie Jeffrey, a pediatrician and director of Keys for Healthy Kids, said sugary drinks make up 46 percent of added sugar calories in peoples’ diets.
Nowadays added sugar is found in all kinds of food. That’s led to children preferring foods with sugar to those without it. Anything that doesn’t have sugar — such as vegetables — tastes bad to them, she said.
Jeffrey said the sugary diets have led children to have diseases that are typically found in adults; pre-diabetes, high cholesterol and high triglycerides, for instance. The answer isn’t only to stop kids from drinking sugary drinks, but it’s a good place to start.
“We have to start with the low-hanging fruit,” Jeffrey said. “The low-hanging fruit is to eat the fruit and not to drink the fruit juice.”
While fruit has sugar, it’s better for people because it’s not processed and it has nutritional value like fiber in addition to sugar.
Jeffrey said she would support a tax of more than 1 cent per ounce. The point is to price it high enough that kids and teenagers can’t purchase it, she said. Jeffery compared sugar to tobacco. Studies show the sugar industry has been doing things similar to what the tobacco industry did to promote their products, including targeting young people, paying experts to promote their products as healthy and funding studies that indicate their products are safe, she said.
The portion sizes of these drinks have increased over the years, too. The average size of a soda has more than doubled since the 1950s, up from 6.5 ounces to 16.2 ounces, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest West Virginia already has a soft drink tax of 1 penny per 16.9 fluid ounces. The tax benefits the West Virginia University School of Medicine.
Compton said opponents of the proposed tax argue that because the state’s current tax hasn’t stopped consumption, neither would a new tax. But, she said, the state’s current tax is insignificant and most people don’t realize it’s there.
The proposed sugary drink tax would bring in an estimated $89 million annually at one cent per ounce and $128 million per year at 2 cents per ounce, Compton said.
The American Heart Association doesn’t have a vested interest in where the money goes, she said. Some proponents have suggested that it fund West Virginia’s Medicaid program or the general fund.
“We really don’t care where the money goes,” Compton said. “Our main reason in being involved is reducing that consumption.”
Kelli Caseman, director of the WV Kids’ Health Partnership, a project of West Virginians for Affordable Health Care, said they’re not asking for how the revenue from the tax would be used. They just hope the tax would give people pause before they buy a soda or an energy drink, she said. Caseman said at this point in the campaign they’re still trying to find backers to join.
“We’re going to be spending the next month trying to pull as many people as we can into the vote,” she said.
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