Rhode Island makers blast soda tax idea

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Public health groups in Rhode Island urged lawmakers Tuesday to levy a tax on sugary drinks, but the idea fell flat with beverage industry leaders who said their products shouldn't be singled out in the fight against obesity.

Legislation before the state's General Assembly would add one penny per ounce tax to the cost of regular soda or other drinks sweetened with sugar, or $1.44 to the cost of a 12-pack of 12-ounce sodas. Diet sodas or other non-sugared drinks would not be subject to the tax.

The projected $45 million in revenue from the tax would go toward public health efforts to reduce obesity.

Rhode Island lawmakers considered — and ultimately failed to pass — a similar tax proposal last year. Soda taxes have been floated around the country but have run into muscular opposition from distributors, bottlers and retailers.

Rhode Island cardiologist Steven Fera told a legislative committee reviewing the proposal Tuesday that taxing sugary drinks would be an effective way of targeting the growing public health threat of obesity. Fera, speaking on behalf of the American Heart Association, said sugary drinks are a leading contributor to excessive sugar consumption by children and adults.

"I don't see this bill as attacking the beverage industry," he said. "It's not the industry, it's the product. There are a lot of causes of obesity, but we have to target the things we can change. If we don't, our health care costs are going to be unmanageable."

But beverage company leaders said it's wrong to make one industry pay for America's dietary problems, especially as drink companies expand their offerings of sugar-free and reduced calorie drinks. They were joined Tuesday by convenience store owners and restaurant industry leaders who also oppose the tax, which would be levied at the wholesale or distribution level.

"This bill will impact jobs within our industry," said Steven Perrelli, general manager of the Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Southeastern New England Inc. "Moderation is the only answer. Taxation is not the answer."

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Edith Ajello, D-Providence, who said revenue from the tax would be dedicated to public health programs.

The measure faces significant obstacles in the General Assembly where the state's economy and this fall's elections are likely to dampen enthusiasm for any wide-ranging tax increase. Still, lawmakers vowed to give the tax proposal a thorough vetting. It has not been scheduled for a vote.

"We do understand there are jobs involved," said Rep. Larry Valencia, D-Richmond. "We'll weigh all the factors."


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