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Lamont Beverage Tax: Sugar Shakedown Or Public Health Push?

Davis Dunavin
An assortment of sodas at Avery’s Beverages in New Britain, Conn. The company recently started labeling all its sodas with “Don’t Tax Me Ned!” stickers, a dig at Gov. Ned Lamont’s proposal to tax sugary drinks.";s:3:"uri

Connecticut needs to balance its budget. Governor Ned Lamont says 21st century sin taxes could help – among them, taxes on sugary beverages. Lamont says it’ll make the state healthier because soda has been linked to obesity and diabetes. But some worry the taxes would hurt small businesses.

Bottles of Avery’s soda travel down a conveyor belt in a red barn in New Britain. The company has been around for more than a century. Owner Rob Metz walks down the assembly line.

“Each bottle gets a little bit of syrup at this first station here, then it gets filled with carbonated water as it goes around the carousel there…”

Metz likes to give his soda flavors topical names. The company made a flavor for each candidate in the last few presidential elections. And they made one during the last federal government shutdown.

“We called it Shutdown Swill,” Metz said.

Their latest gimmick sits by the front door – a row of sodas whose labels read “Don’t Tax Me Ned!” Governor Ned Lamont has proposed a tax of one-and-a-half cents per ounce of sugary drink. Metz says that would raise the price of a case of his soda from $16.50 to more than $21.

“We decided to put the label over all of our flavors because the tax is going to be on all of our soda. And my running joke is if we did make a flavor, it would be too bitter to drink.”

Credit Davis Dunavin / WSHU
A variety of Avery's sodas emblazoned with the company's anti-tax label.

Metz says his customers see the soda as a gourmet craft product to be enjoyed once in a while.

“I’m of the era where a serving of soda was eight or twelve ounces, and you weren’t drinking two or three of them a day. It was a treat. You might have one, maybe two a week.”

Supporters of the tax, like Yale University’s David Katz, say it’s meant to affect people who drink multiple sodas a day, which is linked to diabetes and obesity. Katz studies ways to prevent those diseases.

“It doesn’t hurt business for the most obvious of reasons – people still get thirsty. They drink something else. And often the something else they’re buying [is] from the same company. It’s just a shift away from this highly concentrated delivery for sugar nobody needs.”

So stores may not take a huge hit, but what about soda makers like Avery’s?

A University of California study released earlier this year showed people in Berkeley say they drank a lot less soda after a similar tax went into effect – especially low-income residents. Katz says he doesn’t think a price increase will drive even those customers away.

“It really is quite rare that somebody with a devotion to drinking a soda occasionally as a treat would find that a financial barrier almost at any level of the socioeconomic strata.”

Katz says if soda companies are worried about their bottom line, the tax could make them rethink things.

“Maybe the people involved in those businesses should be doing something else that is not generating profit at the expense of people’s health and wellbeing.”

Governor Ned Lamont says the tax aims to encourage healthier food choices and mitigate future health costs. Speaking on WTNH’s Capitol Report in February, he mentioned the soda tax alongside similar proposals like taxing tobacco products.

“These are the sins of the 21st century…it’s part of where we gotta go as a society. We’re gonna modernize things and make sure we have a healthier life.”

The UC Berkeley study found a soda tax most improves public health if the money goes into education, like billboards warning about the health effects of sugar. Lamont’s budget office says his beverage tax revenue would go into the general fund.

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.