Dear Big Soda:
You have not beaten us, because the fight for a healthier Vermont will continue.
While your supersized spending — more than $500,000 in just three months — succeeded in soaking the airwaves and newspapers with deceptive advertising, most Vermonters were not fooled. In fact, a Castleton State College poll found 57 percent of Vermonters supported our proposal to tax your unhealthy products to raise money for affordable health care programs.
Sadly, Vermont is not immune to the costly epidemic of obesity and diet-related illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke and many forms of cancer that, thanks in part to big jumps in sugary drink sales over the last 50 years, has made our nation one of the least healthy in the industrialized world. These diseases cause great suffering and impose substantial costs on our health care system. Though we may be the “second healthiest state” in America, when it comes to obesity rates, we are just the best of the worst. One in four Vermont adults is now obese, and 30 percent of our children are overweight or obese. These rates have more than doubled since 1990.
Annually, the cost of treating obesity-related health problems in Vermont, just among adults, is at least $200 million and may be as high as $600 million when factoring in childhood obesity. As a result, health researchers now predict this will be the first generation of American children to live shorter lives than their parents.
The obesity epidemic has many causes, but the overwhelming consensus of independent researchers — those who aren’t on your industry payroll — is that your sugar-loaded, low- or no-nutrition drinks are a major factor. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Council recently warned that heavy doses of added sugars in the American diet are to blame for spikes in type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and other illnesses linked to obesity. The council also confirmed that sugary drinks are the largest source of added sugars in the average American diet, surpassing milk in the 1990s as the largest source of calories for our kids.
Vermont doctors, nurses, dentists and dental hygienists see this story play out with their patients whose habits of drinking multiple sugary drinks each day have given rise to a range of diet-driven diseases. That is why the Alliance for a Healthier Vermont’s sugary drink excise tax proposal enjoyed the support of every major health care provider organization in the state, along with public health organizations including the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society and many others.
Unlike the Vermont doctors who supported an excise tax on sugary drinks, your highly paid spin doctors say that better education is the solution. Yet your industry spends nearly a billion dollars each year to drown out public health education about the risks of drinking too many sugary drinks. Your ads often target children with cartoon characters, computer games and use misleading claims about the health benefits of the liquid sugar you sell. You know that public educational efforts about the health risks of drinking too many sugary drinks don’t stand a chance when they stand alone.
It appears that you’ve learned a lot from Big Tobacco when it comes to deceptive advertising, denying accountability for the health risks your products pose and scaring elected officials who might support policies that would curb unhealthy consumption levels. We’ve learned something, too.
We’ve learned that, as with tobacco, a substantial excise tax that increases the shelf price on sugary drinks and funds effective health care and nutrition programs will help reduce unhealthy levels of consumption. We’ve also learned that it takes time for elected officials to find the courage to take on your powerful, wealthy industry. Though we fell short this legislative session, we helped more legislators find that courage this time around.
You may have won this latest round, but we want you to know that the struggle for a healthier Vermont is far from over.
Anthony Iarrapino is the director of the Alliance for a Healthier Vermont.