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Poll finds support for soda tax

Backing is tied to aiding schools, obesity programs

By Chelsea Conaboy
Globe Staff / May 11, 2011

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In the past three years, Governor Deval Patrick has proposed applying the state sales tax to soda and candy, a measure aimed at raising revenue and curbing consumption of products that researchers tie to rising obesity rates among the state’s adults and children. Each time, lawmakers refused to go along.

The Boston Foundation, the largest public charity in New England, is hoping to change the trend this year. The group is pushing a bill to tax the products, saying the public is behind it.

Sixty-nine percent of Massachusetts voters would support the tax, if the money raised were used to support local schools or programs to reduce obesity in children, according to a new poll commissioned by the foundation and NEHI, a national health policy institute based in Cambridge.

People were evenly split, however — 49 percent in favor and 49 percent opposed — when asked if they would support the sales tax on soda and candy without limits on how the revenue could be used. The survey of 501 people statewide was conducted March 20 to April 2 by MassINC Polling Group.

State health officials estimate that more than half of all adults and nearly one-third of children in middle school and high school are overweight or obese. The tax would be an “opening shot’’ in an ongoing effort to change those numbers, said foundation president Paul S. Grogan.

“We’re not saying [soda] is the single cause, but it’s a major contributor,’’ Grogan said.

The foundation has worked with Representative Kay Khan, a Democrat from Newton, to submit a bill that would change a law that categorizes soda and candy as food products and exempts them from the 6.25 percent sales tax. The bill does not designate a particular use for the estimated $50 million the tax would raise. Supporters of the bill say the exemption is meant to keep food affordable, but these products have little or no nutritional value. The Joint Committee on Revenue will hold a public hearing on the measure tomorrow at 10:30 a.m.

Researchers say that regular consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages — often heavily marketed to children — can lead to obesity and diabetes because they are made with large amounts of sugar and people don’t often count them when thinking about their daily intake. The body has a hard time regulating liquid calories, and sodas with caffeine keep people coming back for more.

But the beverage industry says it is unfairly targeted as the root of a problem caused by the choices people make about their overall diet and lifestyle.

The American Beverage Association has been aggressively fighting taxes on soda, as cities and states across the country look for new tools to counter an obesity epidemic and raise revenue amid squeezed budgets. It has spent millions fighting initiatives that impose product-specific excise taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages and has been successful in nearly every attempt.

Spokesman Chris Gindlesperger said the association is less concerned with sales taxes applied to soda than it is with the excise tax targeted specifically to soda and other sugary beverages.

“No industry wants their product to be singled out with a tax,’’ he said. “But, at the end of the day, the sales tax is broad-based, whereas an excise tax is discriminatory.’’

Massachusetts would join 35 other states that have a sales tax on soda and candy. Those tax rates vary from state to state, but none is high enough to affect soda buying habits, said Roberta R. Friedman, director of public policy at the Yale University Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. The center says a tax of 20 percent is needed to significantly cut consumption.

Khan said the lawmakers could decide to designate the money raised through the tax for a particular use. She and the foundation say they will push for it to pay for public health programs.

Kelly D. Brownell, director of the Rudd center, said he thinks public opinion is turning in favor of soda taxes. He draws parallels to the tobacco taxes that states began passing in the 1960s. Then too, he said, the industry successfully fought the change for years before the idea caught hold among lawmakers.

“Think about the antitax sentiment in the country right now,’’ Brownell said. “The fact that this one is getting so much support is stunning.’’

But Gindlesperger, of the beverage association, disputed that there is broad support for the tax. He pointed to a national Rasmussen poll conducted in March that asked 1,000 adults whether they support “sin taxes,’’ including those on soda and junk food. Fifty-nine percent said no.

The push for the sales tax in Massachusetts is the first political effort of a new coalition called Healthy People/Healthy Economy, led by the Boston Foundation and NEHI.

The Boston Foundation will host a public forum on soda, snacks, and obesity at 8:30 a.m. today at the foundation’s office at 75 Arlington St. in Boston.

Chelsea Conaboy can be reached at cconaboy@boston.com.