Massachusetts would become the first state in the nation to adopt an excise tax on sugary beverages under a new plan being considered on Beacon Hill, an extra charge that would increase prices on the most common sodas and sports drinks.
Winchester Senator Jason Lewis has proposed an additional tax on sugary drinks at the wholesale level. Drinks with five to 19 grams of added sugar per 12 ounces would cost an extra penny per ounce, and drinks with over 20 grams of sugar, like most sodas and sports drinks, would cost two cents more.
The message from the experts and lawmakers at a State House information session on the bill Tuesday was clear: sugary drinks are bad and the state should do something to change consumers' buying habits.
"The goal of this legislation is to reduce the consumption of sugary drinks, replacing it with water and other healthier beverage choices, particularly among children and teenagers," said Lewis (D-Winchester,) the lead proponent of the bill.
Public health experts say there is no positive health benefit for drinks sweetened with sugar and excess liquid calories can lead to obesity and health problems.
"It used to be something that was seen as kind of a one-time special treat. We're now certainly seeing people consume it a lot more. Kids are actually drinking ten times what they should be drinking," Allyson Perron from the American Heart/American Stroke Association said.
Steve Boksanski, president of the Massachusetts Beverage Association, the state industry group for drink suppliers, bottlers and distributors, wrote in a statement that there "are much better ways to fund programs important to our communities than a tax that threatens jobs, hurts our local businesses and hits working-class families the hardest."
"The real solution to the obesity challenge is not a tax that costs jobs and hurts working families, but for public health advocates, government and the industry to work together on meaningful steps that improve the health of individuals and communities," Boksanski said.
The revenue brought in by the tax, estimated at around $360 million a year, would go to public health programs.
Higher prices on sugary drinks would make the beverages more expensive for some of the poorest communities in the state, should they decide to continue to purchase them.
"Minority and lower income communities are certainly targeted and marketed a lot more by industry. They're certainly seeing that the lower cost of those products make it much easier for them to see. Unfortunately, the diseases are also regressive. We're seeing much higher rates especially for heart disease, diabetes, in lower income [areas,]" Perron said.
Lewis argues that consumers would still have a choice to purchase less sugary options and the industry could move toward healthier products.
Lewis says sugary drinks are the single largest source of added sugar in the American diet and the drinks' popularity has contributed to a proliferation of chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease and tooth decay.
If the wholesale tax was passed on to the consumer through the retail price of the drink, the added tax could increase the price of a 12 ounce McDonalds "Kids" size soda by 24 percent. Larger drinks would be even pricier, with a 40 ounce "Big Gulp" from 7-Eleven rising from $1.79 to $2.59, a 44.7 percent increase.
Lewis points to the 1 cent tax Berklee, California added to sugary drinks in 2015, which the senator said lead to a decrease in sugar consumption in low-income neighborhoods and an increase in water consumption. Lewis expects his legislation could lower overall sugar consumption in Massachusetts by 20 to 25 percent.
It will be a tough political road ahead for the measure. Besides sugar, fast food and beverage industries with deep pockets, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Gov. Charlie Baker have said now is not the time to institute any new broad-based taxes.
Lewis has made a reputation as a bit of a crusader for public health policy that tries to change public habits. The Winchester Democrats said he sees the public health role of government as trying to ensure the health and wellbeing of children.
"There's a role for government as well to help put in place policies and practices in education and prevention efforts that will help children to make healthier decisions and to get a good start in life," Lewis told WGBH News.