Pediatricians launch campaign to tax sugary drinks at State House event

Sugary beverage prescription pad/Courtesy photo
Sugary beverage prescription pad/Courtesy photo

The way Dr. Barry Zuckerman sees it, sodas and other sugary beverages have no nutritional value. So, it makes little sense to him that the drinks are exempt from state sales tax on the basis that they are food.

Zuckerman, chairman of the Department of Pediatrics at Boston Medical Center, planned to make that argument this morning at the State House as one in a group of pediatricians gathering to urge legislators to change the law.

“This, to me, should be relatively easy because people can drink other refreshing drinks without sugar,” he said, in an interview. “The beverage itself has no food value.”

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But it hasn’t been easy for advocates of taxing the drinks. In each of the past three years, Governor Deval Patrick has included a measure in his state budget to remove the tax exemption for sugar-sweetened beverages, but the Legislature has rejected it.

The Boston Foundation and its partners in the Healthy People/Healthy Economy campaign, who will join the doctors at the State House, are trying again this year. The goal is to show legislators that there is a “community of support” for taxing the beverages, said Keith Mahoney, spokesman for the foundation.

The group released a poll in May that said 69 percent of people in Massachusetts would support the tax if the money were put toward local schools or programs to reduce childhood obesity.

Across the country, efforts to add taxes to sugar-sweetened beverages have faced fierce opposition from the beverage industry.

But Chris Gindlesperger, spokesman for the American Beverage Association, which represents a large majority of the non-alcoholic beverage market, said he is less concerned with application of a broad-based sales tax to the drinks than he is with the “discriminatory” excise taxes that have been proposed elsewhere.

The group of pediatricians scheduled to appear at the State House, which included Dr. Lynda Young, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, is launching a campaign to enlist their colleagues across the state to take a stand on sugary beverages.

The doctors planned to produce up to 5,000 prescription pads printed with an image of soda bottles with a line through them. Some will be designed to give to patients. Others will be printed as postcards that doctors can mail to their legislators each time they see a patient who is grappling with childhood obesity and for whom the drinks are believed to be a factor, said Dr. Natalie Stavas, one of the residents overseeing the program.

During his career, Zuckerman said, he has seen many kinds of health epidemics but none that threaten more than a third of children, as the growing obesity problem does.

“It’s a tsunami waiting to happen and everyone knows about it,” he said. “The sugary drink is one contributor.”

Gindlesperger said the industry has worked to stem the products’ influence on children by, for example, taking full-calorie soft drinks out of schools.

But opponents of the drinks say much more is needed. Zuckerman said he would like to see something stiffer levied against the drinks than the state’s 6.25 percent sales tax.

“I see this as a first step,” he said. “I don’t see this as adequate.”

Doctors interested in participating in the prescription pad program can contact Stavas at or through the program’s Facebook page. See an image of the prescription pad there as well.