Our Opinion: Sugary drink tax will benefit state

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The philosophical argument over how far a state should go in attempts to modify the behavior of residents is a fluid one. Often, it depends on whose ox is being gored, but there are also times when such actions make sense for the benefit of the entire population. The latter is the case when the subject is taxation of sugary drinks, a move Beacon Hill is considering and which the beverage industry has sought to oppose as overbearing "nanny state" intervention wherever in the country the possibility rears its head.

The scientific and medical evidence is in, and excess sugar in the American diet has been shown to be a cause of heart disease, diabetes and obesity in an ever-younger cohort of the populace. Such illnesses, aside from being deleterious to the quality of life of individuals, victimize the entire pool of taxpayers and those paying insurance premiums who must collectively bear the burden of public health problems resulting from its overconsumption. Accordingly, several states have passed laws taxing sugary beverages and discouraging their marketing, and two state representatives and one senator have filed bills that would tax such drinks on an ascending scale based on their sugar content. Additionally, they have introduced legislation that would ban marketing in public schools, require containers to carry health warnings and mandate that any chain restaurant's "default" beverage be something more healthy, like flavored and unflavored waters, milk or unsweetened juice.

The estimated annual revenue from such a tax hovers in the $300 million range, which would make a tidy sum to finance an education campaign to enlighten that segment of Bay State residents that remains unaware of sugary drinks' negative health effects, but the windfall to state coffers is not the primary reason for the legislation. Those who insist that a sugary drink tax hurts those who can least afford it may wish to consider the state cigarette tax, which arguably does the same. Moreover, like cigarettes, sugary drinks are not a life necessity. In fact, if the Legislature really wants to make a dent in their consumption, it should add sugary drinks to the state Department of Transitional Assistance's list of food items not eligible for the Electronic Benefit Transfer card, along with alcohol and other substances.

Lifetime dietary habits form in childhood, and the more the state can do encourage good ones, the better it is for all. A tax on harmful consumables, rather than a ban, still allows individuals to make their own choices while making strides toward achieving a collective beneficial effect. It's a fair and reasonable approach to a growing problem, and it ought to become law.

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