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Derrick Z. Jackson

Can Patrick stay sweet on the soda tax?

By Derrick Z. Jackson
Globe Columnist / March 14, 2009
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IT IS LEFT for Deval Patrick to stand up where David Paterson stood down. In December, Paterson, the governor of New York, proposed an 18 percent tax on soda and other sugared drinks. Besides scrounging for recession revenue, he pushed the hard facts about soft drinks. Noting that soda consumption by New Yorkers went up over the last four decades from five cans a week to 11, and citing studies tying weight gain to that increase, Paterson's office said, "The obesity epidemic is a public health catastrophe and the greatest threat to our children today."

That was 2008 B.C. - Before Coke and the toxic liquid lobby drowned Paterson. Pepsi made noise about moving its New York state headquarters to Connecticut. Bodegas howled they would be destroyed. The American Beverage Association sent its vice president for "science" to Albany to testify, in the spirit of cigarette makers, that there is no absolute link between soda and obesity, and therefore "total abstinence from soda drinking will have no impact on public health."

The American Beverage Association is becoming more Orwellian with each study that exposes soda as a useless excuse for water. The association knows this because it proclaims on its website that, "All beverages provide hydration . . . to control body temperature, keep skin moist and transport oxygen and other essential nutrients to our cells."

All beverages? The Beverage Association, of course, does not mention that sugar beverages help transport diabetes to our cells.

It became clear a month ago that the tactics were working. In a town hall meeting in upstate New York, Paterson was quoted as saying, "The tax on soda was really a public policy argument. In other words, it's not something that we necessarily thought we would get." The Associated Press quoted him more bluntly, "I don't think the Legislature will pass it."

This week, Paterson officially dropped the 18-percent proposal, along with other proposed sports, music, and entertainment fees and taxes that added up to $1.3 billion. Paterson said he dropped the taxes because of the state's incoming share of federal stimulus money.

New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said, "We believe it is particularly important not to increase the cost of those basic quality-of-life products." Silver and Paterson drank the Kool-Aid that Coke and Pepsi represent our quality of life even as it destroys it for our children in unprecedented ways.

Hopefully, Patrick will not be forced to drink from the same cup. He has proposed to eliminate the sales tax exemption for soda and candy. The evidence is abundantly clear these days that they are not "food," not with a 20-ounce bottle of Coke containing more than 15 teaspoons of sugar, according to Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

The resulting 5 percent tax on soda and candy is less than a third of what Paterson proposed, so modest that most public health advocates doubt its impact on actual consumption. Some researchers suggest that a tax around 10 percent is where consumption would drop. But considering that Patrick is a former Coca-Cola executive, this is still a bold move that would add over $40 million annually to the state's wellness fund. In a telephone interview this week, Rudd Center director Kelly Brownell said, "A tax at even 5 percent would probably allow the state to be able to provide more fresh fruits and vegetables in schools, help the poor access healthy foods at things like farmers markets and obesity prevention programs."

Patrick, like Paterson, put out a strong policy brief, saying diabetes alone costs Massachusetts $3.4 billion a year. The brief said "childhood obesity is a critical public health crisis" and removing the tax exemption is "a critical first step."

Having defeated Paterson, major soda and candy companies, which spent $7 million last year on federal lobbying, will surely beg old friend Patrick to also back down. News reports say the Legislature is ambivalent about taxing candy and soda. It would be cowardly for the Legislature to side with sugar water and candy bars, as kids keel over from diabetes.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.

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