Businesses fear sugary drink tax as proponents hope bills are brought to a vote

FOSTER, R.I. (WLNE) – Beverages with added sugar could become more expensive if a bill taxing sugary drinks is passed in Rhode Island.

The Rhode Island Public Health Institute (RIPHI) is leading the charge on the bill that would tax beverages like soda, lemonades and sports drinks by 1.5-cent-per-ounce. The institute estimates as much as $45 million could be raised by the tax, and that money would fund a program incentivizing healthy eating.

For low income families using SNAP benefits, a 50% discount would be applied for fruit and vegetable purchases at the grocery store.

“We know that processed sugar is one of those things that leads to chronic medical diseases like diabetes, which is just a huge burden not just to Rhode Island but across the world. So it’s a win from that regard, in terms of decreasing sugar, and it’s also a win-win because it increases funding for SNAP incentives,” said Dr. Philip Chan, medical director at RIPHI.

The Institute is confident the sugary drink tax bill will pass if lawmakers bring it to a vote. Hearings on the bill have wrapped up.

“We are now waiting for this bill to be brought to the floor. We believe, if the vote were held today, we would have the votes for this to pass,” said Dr. Amy Nunn, executive director of RIPHI. “The time to act on this bill is now.”

Small business owners like Eli Berkowitz who owns Little Rhody Foods in Foster thinks the tax is unfair.

“I think the state really needs to focus on trying to educate the people that need to have that, whether they’re obese or have diabetic issues,” said Berkowitz, “but taxing the drink…if you’ve got someone that’s healthy, why can’t they go and enjoy a Coke or a Del’s Lemonade?”

His business distributes food and beverages like Del’s and Autocraft syrup. He said he fears what the tax could do to business.

“Companies like myself or Yacht Club Soda, we are small companies. We have to compete against the big companies. We work on pennies in this business.”

Dr. Nunn, however, said studies have been done proving a sugary drink tax won’t hurt companies’ bottom lines.

“There have been many, many economic studies conducted across the country that show that this has absolutely zero impact on small businesses, and zero impact on employment,” she said. “People will switch to water and healthier options if unhealthy drinks become more expensive.”

Berkowitz sells healthier options, but says it’s still unfair to tax just drinks and not food that plays a role in obesity.

“If I go to McDonald’s, you can go in and get a Diet Coke, order a big mac, and supersize the fries. What about that? Talk about obesity. So, you know, where do you draw the line?”

The House and Senate Finance Committees have recommended the bills be held for further study.

WLNE-TV 2021

Categories: News, Regional News, Rhode Island