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OP-ED | Do We Really Need the New Haven Trio’s Sugar Tax?

by | Aug 8, 2014 5:30am () Comments | Commenting has expired | Share
Posted to: Health Care, Opinion, Health Care Opinion, Poverty, Taxes, New Haven

What is it with New Haven and soda pop? Does the Elm City consume more soda than comparable cities? Is its obesity rate higher? Not as far as I can tell, which makes me think there must be something in the water — or perhaps in the energy drinks sold at the Stop & Shop on Elm Street.

In the last six months, three high-profile politicians have proposed new taxes on sugary drinks, the vast majority of which is consumed as Pepsi, Red Bull or the like. Do they know something the rest of us don’t know?

Back in February, newly elected Mayor Toni Harp proposed a statewide tax on soda. The mayor, who had just arrived at City Hall after 20 years in the state Senate, proposed a tax that would go beyond New Haven’s borders because Connecticut law doesn’t permit municipalities to enact new methods of taxation. Such authority must be granted by lawmakers in Hartford — a long shot.

Perhaps in response, Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, another New Havenite, introduced a like-minded bill during this year’s legislative session but it never made it out of committee.

As if on cue, Rep. Rosa DeLauro from — you guessed it — New Haven, revived her proposal to enact a national soda tax that would, in effect, impose a 16-cent tax on a bottle of sugared soda pop and other high-calorie drinks like Gatorade. The proceeds would go toward federal health initiatives. Like the dreaded gross receipts tax on petroleum products in Connecticut, the 16-cent tax would not remain fixed, but would instead rise with the price of the product starting in 2016 when the tax would be indexed to inflation.

Make no mistake about it: there are some compelling reasons to reduce America’s consumption of these nasty drinks. Over the last 40 years, the nation’s obesity rate has risen right along with its consumption of sugary beverages.

But there is also compelling evidence suggesting that the poorer you are, the more likely you are to be fat. And most poor people benefit from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.

Will poor people who buy soda with food stamps pay DeLauro’s tax or will they be exempt on the grounds that it would be self-defeating for the federal government to tax itself? DeLauro doesn’t say.

My fear is this will be another one of those revenue-raising schemes — like tobacco taxes and the lottery — that are really nothing more than taxes on the poor. Under DeLauro’s proposal, a needy individual buying a 12-ounce Mountain Dew with 47 grams of sugar would be subject to the tax, while a large (16-ounce) Starbucks salted caramel mocha frappacino (66 grams) purchased by a K Street lobbyist would not.

Rather than impose a tax that will disproportionately fall on lower-income people and racial minorities, why not take those same sugary drinks off the list of items that can be purchased with food stamps? One recent study indicated removing soda from the SNAP list would lead to significant drops in obesity and diabetes rates among the poor and prevent at least 141,000 kids from getting fat and another 240,000 adults from developing Type 2 diabetes.

That would send a powerful message that would be far more compelling than a 16-cent tax: if you want to pollute your body with Mountain Dew or Monster, then you must do it on your own dime, not the state’s. After all, we don’t permit SNAP recipients to buy cigarettes or alcohol with food stamps, so why should taxpayers foot the bill for Fanta Orange? The N in SNAP stands for nutrition, which is precisely what DeLauro tells us that soda does not have.

I know. Many advocates for lower-income people argue that such a ban would unfairly stigmatize them and send the message that they’re uniquely unqualified to make good choices about their diets. But by giving them food stamps, aren’t we already doing that? There’s a reason the government enrolls the poor in SNAP rather than just giving them cash and trusting them spend it on food. SNAP exists precisely because we want to help the poor but don’t always trust them to make the right choices.

At this point, the soda tax is basically an academic argument anyway. DeLauro’s bill has about as much of a chance getting through the Republican House of Representatives as a handgun ban.

But I applaud the New Haven Trio for putting their proposals forward. We might disagree about the need for a new tax, but we do need a meaningful conversation about how to handle obesity and its very expensive impact on our healthcare system.

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and is news editor of The Berkshire Record in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill.

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(15) Archived Comments

posted by: bob8/57 | August 8, 2014  9:56am


If only there was a way to discourage parents from giving their kids sugary drinks… while at the same time offering a financial incentive for healthier alternatives.

posted by: shocked | August 8, 2014  10:45am

I dont drink soda very often - maybe 2-3x a year. My opinion given to anyone that asks is to avoid it and just drink water.  That said I don’t think govt should be involved. Greater soda and greater obesity in the past 50 years - ok can you prove causality?  We also have greater awareness of food pyramid (aka govt intervention) and obesity in that same time frame - why isn’t that blamed? Same correlation.  Let’s let people make their own decisions.  Some will make bad ones but that overall cost will be less.  And make the cost of h/c etc if that is your argument felt by the individuals.  Most will change their habits eventually.

posted by: Acumen | August 8, 2014  11:22am


If you could increase the average worker’s pay by 10%, cut his taxes 10%, and reduce his health insurance premium cost 10%, all at the same time, would you do it? If that was only possible by restricting the freedom of some major corporations to sell any product they wanted, would you still do it? Would you sacrifice your own financial interests so that big corporations could increase their profits? Because that’s what is at stake. It is a proven fact that sugar sweetened beverages contribute substantially to the overweight/obesity epidemic. It is also a fact that overweight/obesity substantially increases the cost of health care in the U.S. It is also a fact that the U.S. spends 2-3 times as much per capita on health care as Canada, Europe and Japan. It is also a fact that health care is a major government expense in the U.S. This country has a financial interest that affects every citizen personally in reducing health care spending by making people healthier, and we can’t allow major food corporations to stand in the way because they want to profit on the overweight/obesity health crisis.

posted by: ASTANVET | August 8, 2014  12:03pm

Holy cow acumen and Bob8/57 - what ever happened to freedom?  free will, choices and consequences.  Bob would have us give financial incentives to say “go grab some water” (parent’s job) We all know that sugar causes people to get fat acumen - you want to constrict someones ability to manufacture, and purchase soft drinks by the force of government… wow - just wow.  If people didn’t drink them, those companies would go out of business.  The fact that people DO want them is an inconvenient truth.  It isn’t racist, corporatist, or anything other than people like to have a coke, they buy them… they have consequences from that, both in health terms and the cost difference between water and soda, but here’s a great news flash, bottled water is just as expensive and those companies are making billions on bottled water… should we stop those greedy captialists too?

posted by: Acumen | August 8, 2014  12:55pm


I offer you more money in your paycheck, lower taxes, and lower health care costs. ASTANVET offers you the privilege of getting sick enriching fat cat corporate executives and millionaire investors. No wonder that ASTANVET wants to change the subject. He says he is protecting freedom, but he’s really only protecting the status quo. One can only wonder who put him up to it.

posted by: JH_1 | August 8, 2014  1:13pm

How about some personal accountability?

Rather than legislation or new taxation, how about encouraging more people to take personal accountability for their choices in food or beverages?  I get that healthier foods tend to be more expensive.  But not all are expensive. 

The following is a true story.  When I was a teenager, someone came to the counter at the restaurant I was a cook for and ordered a 1/2 lb cheeseburger, an order of fries and an order of onion rings.  No big deal, but what I heard next got my attention, which is why I still remember this story.  Because they were “watching what they ate”, that person ordered a diet soda instead of a regular soda.  I thought to each their own.

Should we legislate how much people can eat in one sitting?  Or should we add a tax if the total calories exceeds the predetermined amount?

posted by: Acumen | August 8, 2014  1:41pm


A 20-ounce serving of Coke Classic has about 240 calories. Drink one of those, only one, every day of the year and you’ve consumed 87,600 calories. That’s enough to increase your body weight by 25 pounds. You burn about 100 calories by walking a mile, but most of the calories in a sugar-sweetened beverage are in the form of high fructose corn syrup that must be deposited on your body as fat before it can be burned as fuel for your muscles. It requires four times as much aerobic oxygen uptake to burn one calorie of fat as it does to burn one calorie of glycose. So that means you only burn about 25 of those calories per mile. Do the math: you’d have to walk clear across the United States to burn off the calories you get from drinking one 20-ounce Coke every day for a year.

posted by: Acumen | August 8, 2014  1:49pm


A bill was passed during the 2009-2010 legislative session to require restaurants to print the calories of their meals and entrees on their menus, so the apocryphal diner at JH_1’s restaurant would have known how that burger, fries and rings affected his diet. But the bill was vetoed by Gov. Jodi Rell. That was another progressive public health measure defeated in order to maximize corporate profits.

posted by: ASTANVET | August 8, 2014  2:49pm

acumen - I am a free man.  I have freedom of thought, and freedom of choice.  You wish to impose my will on others, however well intentioned, it is just wrong.  I harm no one with my ideas of individual freedoms and personal responsibility.  If someone wants to drink Coke, knowing full well it is not healthy - who are you to stop them.

posted by: ASTANVET | August 8, 2014  2:50pm

by the way, don’t you think the term “fat cat corporate executives” is getting a little chiche by now?  Come on now.

posted by: Michele | August 8, 2014  5:17pm

What is worse than sugary drinks are those drinks artificially sweetened with Aspartame (including flavored milk in public schools). We were fed the lie back in the 90s that fat made you fat, so low-fat foods came out in grocery stores filled with chemicals used to make them look and feel like whole foods. Then we learned that sugar is bad for us at the same time as chemical companies came out with artificial sweeteners. None of these politicians give one whit for the health and welfare of citizens. They are playing into the hands of chemical companies and Big Food. Ask who wrote the bill? Lobbyists write bills these days. GMA lobbyists, Monsanto lobbyists, Dow and Syngenta lobbyists write bills. This is a bunch of baloney.

posted by: Acumen | August 8, 2014  7:59pm


You’re a “free man”? Free to pay higher taxes and higher medical insurance premiums so that big corporations and their fat cat executives can make higher profits? That’s slavery to the corporate consumption ideology. I’d rather be free by having more money in my own pockets. When I get the word out to our fellow Americans and they get to choose between your version of slavery and my version of freedom, I have no doubt that they will side with me.

posted by: Just another CT resident | August 10, 2014  1:19pm

Since all 3 legislators represent the City of New Haven, I suggest that they start out with a beta test for their idea. Institute a soft drink tax on all soft drink purchases by the residents of New Haven. If it reduces the amount of soft drinks consumed by those citizens, let the 3 legislators sell their “successful” idea to the rest of the state’s residents.

That is assuming the 3 are re-elected by the citizens of New Haven.

posted by: ASTANVET | August 10, 2014  7:56pm

Acumen, what you offer is less choices for the average person.  If people didn’t want to drink koolaid or coke - they wouldn’t.  But they do.  Their health costs should not be paid by anyone - but you’ll get me off on a tangent there.  Their choices, their consequences.  But your “solution” is not one that I would undertake, what next?  you don’t like my truck so I can’t by trucks?  You don’t like my books so I can’t buy those - you have a dangerous ideology. 

Michele - I completely agree with you - all that aspartame is an excitatory neuro toxin - it does horrible stuff to your brain, and the rest of your system… I won’t touch the stuff - but again, I choose not to - my friends drink it - but that’s on them.

posted by: Acumen | August 11, 2014  10:36am


Extra taxes have worked to reduce consumption of tobacco, and they have been successful in numerous other countries in Europe, Asia and South America to reduce consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages. We don’t need to ‘beta test’ it to determine if it would work. We only need to implement measures that have already been proven successful.

As for “less choice for the average person,” we already do that. We don’t let people drive on either side of the road. We fine them if they don’t obey stop signs. In times of war, we draft young men into the military and punish those who don’t comply. I fail to understand why this objection is frequently raised. Sugary drinks are making people sick and our country is going into debt paying for it. “Externality” is an economics term referring to “an effect of a purchase or use decision by one set of parties on others who did not have a choice and whose interests were not taken into account.” Beverage makers profit from their products but complain that their corporate taxes are too high. Yet the country is going into debt paying for the negative effect of their products. I don’t see why taxes on the product or its production should be controversial.

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