Vermonters Sour on Soda Tax

Sunday, March 22, 2015
South Royalton — Vermont merchants this week spoke out against a proposed tax on sugar-sweetened beverages that lawmakers hope will raise about $35 million for health care while encouraging residents to switch to healthier drinks.

The excise tax would add 2 cents to the price per ounce of any sugar-sweetened beverage, including sodas, sports drinks and sweet teas . Consumers would be unlikely to notice the source of the extra cost, as an excise tax applies to wholesale prices and is not visible at the register — a distinction that the bill’s authors hope will encourage shoppers to choose different beverages.

But Daisey Salls, who owns RB’s Delicatessen in South Royalton, said she feared that the measure could drive her customers out of state.

“It’s ridiculous,” Salls said in an interview Saturday. “Can’t you imagine? Everybody’s already headed to New Hampshire.”

Salls’ deli in downtown South Royalton sells “a fair amount” of soda, she said, adding that it wasn’t a stretch to imagine that shoppers might drive a few extra miles to buy cheaper goods in New Hampshire “in one big swoop.”

“They’re taxing us to death,” she said.

Paul Perry, of the Bradford Bottle Shoppe in Bradford, Vt., expressed a similar concern. His store makes most of its profits from alcohol sales, rather than sweetened beverages, but the taxes in place for alcohol were already “much higher” than in the Granite State, he said.

As for the structure of the excise tax, Perry said he would prefer that it appear on customers’ receipts.

“No one likes a hidden tax unless you’re the person putting the tax on,” he said. “The intent of the legislation is to deceive the public so they don’t realize they’re paying a tax. They just think we’re charging more for it — they think we’re making more money.”

State Rep. Jim Masland, D-Thetford, who sits on the Ways and Means Committee, which is currently considering the bill, said he sympathized with Perry’s concern.

“That’s clearly a problem. West Lebanon is nearby and it’s easy to get to,” he said, though “the cross-border issue, specifically, is not something that would keep me from voting for something that could work.”

Still, Masland said he wouldn’t vote for the excise tax in its current form because he believed big-box stores likely would spread the costs over thousands of products, making the increase invisible to the consumer.

The state might succeed in raising money, he said, but probably would not manage to improve Vermonters’ diets.

Without lending his support to any one solution, the Thetford representative mentioned a few alternatives: the state could lighten the impact of the excise tax on retailers by spreading it out over more products, including candy, he said, or the state could impose a sales tax, albeit at a lower rate.

(Legislators couldn’t levy a sales tax of more than 6 percent, which is what residents pay at the register for other taxed food and beverages, he said.)

The beverage bill’s two main sponsors, Rep. Alison Clarkson, D-Woodstock, and Rep. George Till, D-Jericho, also sit on the Ways and Means Committee and could not be reached for comment on Saturday.

Outside RB’s Delicatessen on Saturday, Mark Harper, of South Royalton, said he opposed the tax.

“I don’t think any food or beverage should be taxed,” Harper said, a bottle of blue Gatorade in his hand.

A 2-cent assessment such as the one proposed would increase the price of a 20-ounce drink like Harper’s by 40 cents.

Even so, Harper said he doubted it would affect his shopping habits.

Rather, he opposed these kinds of taxes on principle.

“It’s not going to stop,” he said, predicting more and more taxes after this one. “They sneak up on you.”

Another deli customer, Juan Vallejo, who studies at the nearby Vermont Law School, took a different tack.

“It’s important” to tax sweetened beverages because they contribute to childhood obesity, he said, and “because people drink them more often than any other liquid.”

Despite his views on healthy drinking, Vallejo admitted he had a bottle of Coke in his shopping bag.

“This is diet,” he said. “It’s OK.”



Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.




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