Health Care

Nourish RI wants to improve public health with small tax on sugar-sweetened beverages

“When patients ask me, as a physician, what is the number one thing they can do to lose weight or if they’re pre-diabetic, my answer is always to reduce your consumption of soda and other sugary beverages,” said Dr Philip Chan, Associate Professor in the Department of Medicine at Brown University. “It’s literally one of the best things we can do health wise besides quitting smoking or exercising.”
Photo for Nourish RI wants to improve public health with small tax on sugar-sweetened beverages

Published on May 26, 2021
By Steve Ahlquist

The sugar-sweetened beverage (SSB) tax would raise funds to address Rhode Island’s alarming rates of hunger and food insecurity, said Dr Amy Nunn, Executive Director of the Rhode Island Public Health Institute (RIPHI). The proposed legislation would “generate revenue that will be directed to address the hunger crisis many Rhode Island families are experiencing. Currently, one in four Rhode Island households do not receive adequate nutrition,” says RIPHI. “The revenue from this small 1.5 cent per ounce sugary drinks tax will be used to fund a Retail SNAP Incentive Program, which will provide low-income families with a 50% discount on their fresh fruit and vegetable purchases at retail grocery stores when they pay with their SNAP benefits.”

Examples of alternatives to sugar-sweetened beverages

At an event outside the Rhode Island State House on Tuesday afternoon Dr Nunn introduced Senator Valerie Lawson (Democrat, District 14, East Providence, Pawtucket) and Representative Jean Philippe Barros (Democrat, District 59, Pawtucket) who sponsored the legislation. The legislation S0327 and H5715 would “create a tax on sugary drinks with the intent of discouraging excessive consumption of those beverages and would create a dedicated revenue source for programs designed to benefit public health in addition to the ultimate goal of reducing the health and economic costs of obesity in the state.”

Dr Nunn acted as emcee for the event and after a moment of silence for the one-year anniversary of the murder of George Floyd, introduced the speaker.

“The pandemic has shined a glaring light on food insecurity in our state,” said Senator Lawson. “Recently, Rhode Island Kids Count released their annual Fact Book showing that the pandemic had a disproportionate effect on our children, particularly those of color. According to the Rhode Island Food Bank, one-in-four Rhode Islanders go hungry – one of the highest rates in the nation – particularly our most vulnerable constituents – seniors, communities of color, low-income populations and our children.”

“We know that existing SNAP benefits don’t go far enough to ill the void of hunger in our communities,” said Representative Barros. “According to Rhode Island DHS, on average a family of four receives roughly $425 in SNAP funding per month…

“There is no other legislation being discussed right now that would have a more positive impact in our state and in our community,” said Representative Barros.

According to RIPHI, “multiple cities that have implemented the SSB tax have seen downward trends in the consumption of SSBs that could lead to improved health outcomes and greater healthcare savings.”

Mother and community advocate Andrea Heath strongly supports the bill. “This bill would make a huge difference in my life and the life of my newborn son.

“As a new mom who is currently breastfeeding, I understand how important it is to have a diet that is full of fresh fruit and vegetables,” said Heath. “It provides my newborn son with the vital nutrients, vitamins and minerals essential for his development and my own.”

The SNAP benefits Heath receives does not provide enough funds to purchase adequate supplies of fresh fruits and vegetables, but with the money raised by the SSB tax, SNAP recipients would receive 50% discounts on fresh fruits and vegetables.

The SSB tax “would not only aid in stretching my foo budget, but also help improv the quality o my diet and my life by increased access to funds for healthier foods.”

“It has been recently estimated that roughly 52,000 individuals in the US die yearly of a cardio-metabolic disease related to sugary beverage consumption,” said Dr Karen Aspry, from the American Heart Association.

Dr Asbury refuted the idea that the SSB tax is regressive. The effects of sugary drinks contributes to the greater chronic disease burden that is carried by low-income households. According to RIPHI, the revenue generated from the SSB tax will be dedicated to programs that will benefit lower-income communities, generating better health outcomes and lower health care costs.

Elizabeth Burke Bryant, executive director of RI Kids Count said her organization supports the legislation to address two key issues. “Number one, to turn around the discouraging and very explicit increase in obesity and overweight among Rhode Island;’s children and youth, and number two, to be sure that the 47,000 children on SNAP and their families have access to have access to high quality fruits and vegetables as part of the SNAP program.”

“Low income communities across the state and especially people of color are facing extreme financial hardship and hunger due to the pandemic,” said Mario Bueno from Progresso Latino. “Therefore, this is a critical time to pass this legislation.”

Rhode Island ranks 11th for obesity levels in the country. “Latino children have the highest obesity rates in the state,” said Bueno. “This is compounded by the prevalence of diabetes and high blood pressure, among other expensive diseases in our population. If we want to have a healthy community, reducing sugary drinks is essential to that goal.”

“When patients ask me, as a physician, what is the number one thing they can do to lose weight or if they’re pre-diabetic, my answer is always to reduce your consumption of soda and other sugary beverages,” said Dr Philip Chan, Associate Professor in the Department of Medicine at Brown University. “It’s literally one of the best things we can do health wise besides quitting smoking or exercising.”

“We see this as a very important investment in the grocery industry,” said Eliza Dexter Cohen, produce buyer and organic program director for Tourtellot, debunking the common arguments the sugary drink industry uses when opposing such legislation. “This is one of the most important industries in every community…

“This is going to be an investment of over $30 million in that sector of this economy that provides jobs, that grows infrastructure across the state and that builds the businesses that are really the fabric of our neighborhoods…

“This investment in families’ purchasing power means increased sales for grocery stores and it means increased jobs in all of those store locations.”

Several studies refute arguments made by the beverage industry against SSB taxes. In fact, notes RIPHI, “one year after Philadelphia implemented the tax, the city found no significant changes in unemployment compared to neighboring counties for supermarkets, soft drink manufacturing, all potentially affected industries or total unemployement.”

“I’ve spent my life in this industry building jobs [and] finding out what gets a consumer to shop in my store,” said John Santos, general manager of the Urban Greens coop grocery store in Providence. “It’s never been soda. It’s been the produce, it’s been the meat department, it’s the value they find in th customer service. No one is going to be leaving the State of Rhode Island to go to Seekonk to buy their soda.”

Groups in support of the legislation
John Santos, general manager of the Urban Greens coop grocery store in Providence

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