Sweet-Tooth Tax

Higher taxes on sugary foods and drinks would help fight diabetes and heart disease. But many are opposed to an additional tax. (Staff Illustration / December 11, 2012)

Tobacco can make you sick and kill you. So can too much sugar in your diet, which most scientists agree is keyed into the obesity epidemic that's producing a generation of bloated kids and fat-plagued adults.

We tax the hell out of cigarettes to discourage their use, even banning children from buying them. Some experts think Connecticut should at least go the high-tax route for sugar-bomb-baddies like soda and candy.

Higher taxes on sugary foods and drinks might help stem the rising tide of diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease — obesity-related health troubles that cost taxpayers millions every year. It's a strategy that could also offer some quick cash to stuff into a projected multi-billion-dollar gap in the Connecticut state budget.

The difficulty is that higher soda and candy taxes are a decidedly untasty option for political leaders like Gov. Dannel Malloy. They insist there are other, less objectionable ways to reduce the high-fructose addiction of kids and adults alike.

They also know that trying to bump up the cost of a Coke or a Snickers would trigger an all-out lobbying war financed by some very determined food-and-beverage industry giants. It could also piss off voters as we approach what's likely to be a nasty gubernatorial election year in 2014.

Clouding the debate, there are conflicting studies about whether higher taxes on sugar-loaded goodies really work to reduce obesity. The American Beverage Association (which represents major players like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo and has spent millions lobbying against soda taxes in recent years) likes to point out that sugary drinks make up "only 7 percent of the calories in the average American diet."

Yet this issue is not going away.

Mary Kate Lowndes, of the state Commission on Children, says studies have shown that more than one-quarter of Connecticut high school students are now considered overweight or obese, and that one-third of all kindergarteners are in the same way-too-fat category. According to Lowndes, the best estimate for how much obesity is costing our health care system in Connecticut is something like $856 million a year.

In case you had any doubts about the impact of sugary soft drinks on a person's diet, Lowndes points out that the amount of sugar in a single 20-ounce soda is equal to 22 of those sugar packets you get at your local coffee shop.

Voters in several states and municipalities around the country have generally rejected higher soda or "sugar" taxes, thanks in part to those beverage industry lobbying campaigns. States like Vermont are expecting to see another round of debate in 2013, and there's even talk of attempting something in Congress. Over in New York City, Mayor Bloomberg's highly controversial ban on super-sized soda drink sales is due to take effect in March.

A new study came out last month that found a higher level of diabetes in nations that have lots of high-fructose corn syrup in their food, and that report triggered immediate controversy. (One interesting part of the fight is between the high-fructose corn syrup producers and traditional sugar companies; they debate whose sweetener is worse for you, which lends an eerie strangeness to any debate over obesity.)

On the Connecticut front, Malloy insists he has "no intention of raising taxes" right now. He rejects suggestions that higher taxes on candy and soda would cut consumption. "I think there are other ways to change behaviors," he told reporters recently. "For instance, calorie counts, better disclosure."

The top Democratic leader in the Connecticut state Senate, Donald Williams Jr., declined to say whether he might support a new soda tax—either as a way to raise revenue or to improve public health, or both.

"I don't want my quote to be 'Don Williams is considering a soda tax,'" says Williams, whose staff recently asked legislative researchers to check on what other states are doing with candy and soda taxes. "That's too superficial … I'm convinced there's not a silver bullet."

In Connecticut, soda and candy are subject to the general sales tax; the same goes for 44 other states. The research effort Williams requested found just four states (Arkansas, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia) that have extra taxes on soda. In Connecticut and many other states, other types of groceries are not subject to sales taxes at all.

Raising the cost of soda or candy may not in and of itself change the course of our vast obesity crisis, say activists like Mark Winne, but they insist anything government can do to improve our lousy national eating and drinking habits is a good step.

"I'm entirely in favor of high taxes on unhealthy foods," says Winne, an author and healthy food advocate who cofounded the Connecticut Food Policy Council and was executive director of the nonprofit Hartford Food System agency for 24 years. "It makes complete sense."

He says the campaign against tobacco and cigarettes as a health hazard — which has included repeated increases in state taxes — proves taxation can work as health policy.

"We taxed tobacco to the point where we can say it has had a positive impact on [lowering] cigarette consumption," says Winne, who now lives and writes in New Mexico. And he scoffs at claims that higher soda or candy taxes won't have any real impact, arguing that none of those types of taxes have been in place long enough for anyone to make a real judgment.

State Sen. Toni Harp, a New Haven Democrat who cochairs the legislature's budget-writing Appropriations Committee, also believes higher taxes could do the same thing for soda or candy that they did for cigarettes.