LINCOLN — Could a tax on soft drinks help shrink a supersized Nebraska?
State Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln argued Friday that ending the sales tax exemption for pop will help address health problems and costs linked to the state's increasing obesity rate. His proposal, Legislative Bill 447, would direct the $11 million collected annually by a pop tax to school health education programs.
“It's similar to tobacco, it's similar to alcohol,” Avery said during a public hearing on his bill. “It contributes to bad health and it should be taxed.”
People who sell soft drinks or the sweeteners that go in them told members of the Revenue Committee that ending the exemption will tighten the economy, but not waistlines. Americans get just 7 percent of their total calories from sweetened drinks, said Wayne Parks, president of the Nebraska Beverage Association.
“You want to lose weight? Consume less and burn more,” he said. “It's math.”
Most of those who testified in support of the bill tried to convince committee members that Nebraska is headed for serious weight-related health problems.
They cited statistics that 17 percent of Nebraska children and nearly 30 percent of adults are obese, percentages that have nearly doubled in just the past 20 years. All are at higher risk of diabetes, heart disease and cancer, public health officials said.
“If we do not reverse this trend, we will have every second Nebraskan obese by 2030,” said Dr. Adi Pour, Douglas County health director.
As numbers on the scales climb, so do health care costs. A study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation projects by 2030, Nebraska's obesity-related health spending will exceed $3.3 billion per year.
Dr. Bob Rauner, testifying for the Nebraska Medical Association, said if the state can reverse the trend, even by a modest 3.6 percent, it could save $113 million annually in health care costs.
“We are not picking on pop,” Rauner said. “The exemption makes no sense.”
Avery pointed out that 35 other states tax pop sales. The list includes every state surrounding Nebraska except for Wyoming.
The bill would direct revenue from a pop tax to fund proven child wellness efforts for Nebraska schools. It also would send $500,000 annually to the University of Nebraska at Kearney to collect detailed obesity data so progress can be tracked.
UNK professor Kate Heelan told the committee a program started eight years ago in the Kearney schools has reduced childhood obesity across the district. The program rid schools of sugary drinks and snacks, taught healthy eating habits and incorporated exercise in the classroom.
Steve Ford, CEO of a soft drink distributing company, predicted taxing pop won't help Nebraskans lose weight. He cited a review by George Mason University that said even if a tax were high enough to force people to cut back or stop drinking pop, the resulting weight loss would equal less than a pound for the average person.
“There is extensive real-world evidence to support the fact that we cannot tax our way to better health,” said Ford, who also testified on behalf of the Nebraska State Chamber of Commerce.
A representative of the Nebraska Corn Growers also opposed the bill because it would potentially lessen demand for high fructose corn syrup, a common ingredient in soft drinks.
The bill marks Avery's second attempt to pass a Nebraska pop tax. Last year's version didn't get out of committee.
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