The 2-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks proposed in a number of House and Senate bills this year has been discussed in the media in terms of the revenue it will raise: an estimated $65 million per year.
The focus on its revenue-generating potential is understandable at a time when the state coffers are not seeing the kind of collections that our tourism-based economy normally delivers. But the real value of hearing and passing these bills lies in the fact that it has the potential to deliver real and lasting benefits to the health of the people of Hawaii, not least our keiki.
Here are some facts that should prompt us to give the idea of a tax on sugary drinks serious consideration, especially in the middle of a pandemic.
We already know that heart disease, hypertension and diabetes disproportionately affect Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders. It is worth noting that Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders report higher rates of daily sugary drink consumption — nearly 16%, and almost 20%, respectively.
The data on our children is equally sobering. Teenagers in Hawaii consume more sugary drinks than any other age group — on average, more than one drink per day. We should be alarmed and moved to action by the fact that seven in 10 Hawaii third-graders are affected by tooth decay. Families in need often cannot afford to seek dental care, so it is not surprising that one in four suffer from untreated tooth decay.
Liquid sugar is the single largest source of added sugar in the American diet. A sugary drinks tax could help us reduce the multi-million dollar burden on our health care system by putting our Hawaii residents on a path to wellness.
The public supports a tax on sugary drinks. Lawmakers will have voters on their side if they step up and get this done. Recent polling shows that 72% support providing healthier foods and beverages in our communities — that’s up from 60% in 2019. Providing healthier foods and beverages in our schools enjoys even higher support, with 81% strongly supporting, up from 74% the year before.
As a grocer, I wholeheartedly welcome any tax on beverages with added sugar. No one loses any sales — stores and restaurants will sell the same amount of beverages, just different healthier ones. There is no harm to retailers, restaurants and even beverage producers. Large beverage producers have already developed product lines without added sugar.
There’s data to support introducing a tax on sugary drinks. In 2014, Berkeley, Calif., became the first city in the United States to pass a sugary drink tax. It generated revenue of $1.5 million in 2018 and reduced sugary drink consumption by 21%.,
In 2017, Philadelphia became the second city to pass a similar tax. That has generated revenue of $85 million to date. Within two months of implementation, consumption of sugary drinks was 40% less than in comparable cities.
In Philadelphia, overall sales at chain stores did not suffer due to the tax, and in Berkeley, the tax did not result in lower store revenues or higher grocery bills for consumers.
Taxes and surcharges have been proven to help change behavior. The recycling of beverage containers and the cigarette tax are good examples of this.
Instead of spending time debating the merits of something like gambling that we know will harm our society, let’s at least hear from the public about their readiness to accept a tiny tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.
As a businessman, as a parent and as a resident of an island where I see too many families grappling with avoidable, costly health care challenges, I urge lawmakers to give SB 541 or SB 1148 a hearing.
Let’s do this to improve the health of our communities and make them better able to weather the pandemic.
Russell Ruderman retired from the sate Senate in 2020. He owns the Island Naturals stores on Hawaii Island.