Listening to Jim Harrison on VPR’s Vermont Edition last Friday led me to one inescapable conclusion: as a public debater, he makes a mighty fine bagman.
Harrison, for those with a bliss-inducing level of ignorance about Statehouse matters, is one of the most effective lobbyists in Montpelier. Harrison heads the Vermont Retail & Grocers Association, and his current bête noire is the proposed two-cents-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.
Harrison appeared on VPR with the chief pro-tax lobbyist, Anthony Iarrapino of the Alliance for a Healthier Vermont. Harrison’s presentation was pretty much all over the place: he’d shift from one prehashed talking point to another with not even an attempt at segue, he pulled trusty (and rusty) anecdotes out of his back pocket; he’d throw multiple talking points into a single answer, making it impossible to examine them closely. His overall approach could be summarized as, “Throw everything at the wall and hope something sticks.”
If you summed up all his various statements, it’d go something like this:
— The tax will do nothing to change behavior.
— The tax would be the death knell for countless independent businesses.
— Soda consumption is already trending downward, so we don’t need a tax.
— The tax won’t work because people will just shop where the beverages are cheaper (i.e. New Hampshire).
— There is “no comparison” between tobacco and sugary drinks. So the success of the tobacco tax at reducing smoking says nothing about the potential impact of a beverage tax.
Is your head swimming from all the contradictions? It should be. But I feel for Harrison, because he’s basically defending the indefensible: the right to sell grossly unhealthy drinks at the lowest possible price. When, in reality, sugary beverages are artificially low in price because the corn and sugar industries benefit vastly from federal handouts and favorable tax policy.
Harrison’s favorite argument boils down to “We’ve got to compete with New Hampshire.” There’s so much to say about that old canard, I’m going to tackle it in a separate post. For now, let’s focus on Harrison’s other recurring theme: It Won’t Work.
“This is a social experiment. No other state has done anything like this.” True enough, but we do happen to have a wonderful example of a sugary-beverage tax at work. On January 1, 2014, Mexico imposed a one-peso-per-liter tax (about 7 cents) on sugary drinks. The move came in response to rapidly climbing rates of obesity and diabetes. The results? A University of North Carolina researcher is working with Mexican officials on that question, and here’s what they found:
… preliminary results show that during the first three months of 2014, purchases of sodas and other taxed beverages declined by 10 percent compared to the same time period last year.
Meanwhile purchases of untaxed drinks, like 100 percent fruit juice and milk, went up 7 percent, and purchases of bottled water went up 13 percent.
If that’s not enough, the Wall Street Journal reports that a survey of Mexicans found that they are drinking fewer soft drinks, and are more aware of the link between sugary beverages and health problems since the tax was imposed. Another survey indicated that more than half of all Mexicans had cut back on sugary drinks.
Also, Coca-Cola’s biggest Mexican bottler reported a 6.4% sales drop in the first half of 2014 compared to the same period in 2013.
Those are impressive results for the early days of a relatively small tax. Vermont’s would be eight times as large. Imagine the impact it would have on sales of sugary drinks. (Again, I’ll deal with the cross-border argument in a later post.)
As for the comparison with the tobacco tax, Harrison really didn’t have an answer. The tobacco tax has, indeed, helped to drive down smoking rates. He didn’t try to argue that point; he simply bristled at the notion that tobacco and sugary drinks are in the same category.
Well, obviously, they’re not. They’re closer than Harrison would like to admit, but tobacco is clearly a bigger health threat. However, the real comparison isn’t “how bad is it for you?” It’s “Will a tax reduce demand?” On that question, the success of the tobacco tax is strong evidence that a beverage tax will work. Just in case Mexico isn’t enough for you.
Whenever Harrison is fighting a fee, tax, or regulation, he brings out the mom-and-pop types who are, as he puts it, constantly teetering on the brink of oblivion. “Most of our members are smaller, independent stores,” he says. That’s true if you count every store as one. But if you count total sales, the supermarket and megamart chains far outweigh the small independents.
And it’s not the moms and pops who put up the $600,000-plus spent on defeating a sugary-beverage tax in 2013, and are spending hundreds of thousands more this year. No, that money comes from Big Retail and Big Beverage. The moms and pops are politically convenient props.
Harrison also cited some statistics showing that soda sales have trended downward in recent years, and used that fact to question the link between sugary drinks and rising rates of obesity and diabetes. The problem there is, not all sodas are sugary (DIet Coke, et al.) and not all sugary drinks are sodas. And while it’s true that soda sales are dropping, sales of non-carbonated sugary drinks are through the roof: energy drinks, sports drinks, “juice” drinks containing very little juice, sweetened iced tea, etc. It’s not just soda that represents a public-health threat; it’s the vast cornucopia of sugar-laden beverages on the market.
There were many more points in Harrison’s presentation. Each of them sound plausible when presented in a rapid blur of talking points, but all are full of holes when inspected more closely.
Coming soon to this space: “The New Hampshire Chimera.”