PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) ─ Lawmakers are still mulling whether to support a bill designed to discourage Rhode Islanders from the excessive consumption of sugary beverages.
The bill, introduced by Sen. Valarie Lawson and Rep. Jean Philippe Barros, would establish a tax on sugary drinks in Rhode Island.
Under the bill, beverage distributors would pay a 1.5-cents-per-ounce tax on bottled sugary drinks, syrups, or powders offered for sale. The tax would not apply to products without added sugars, such as diet sodas or bottled water.
The legislation would also create a dedicated revenue source for programs designed to benefit public health and help expand access to nutritious meals for Rhode Islanders struggling to put food on the table.
“There is absolutely no reason why we should be drinking so many sugary drinks,” Executive Director of Rhode Island Public Health Institute Dr. Amy Nunn said. “It’s one of the least healthy things that anyone can possibly consume.”
Nunn said currently 25% of homes in the Rhode Island don’t know where their next meal is coming from. That statistic, coupled with high child obesity rates statewide, is what Nunn said is driving the incentive.
“When people buy fruits and vegetables and they pay with their SNAP card, $1 is worth $2,” Nunn explained.
While people will still continue to buy sugary beverages, Nunn said the hope is that they will consumer them much less.
“There has not been any evidence whatsoever to show that this leads to job loss or is detrimental to small businesses,” Nunn explained.
But Gregory Parrillo, manager of Santoro’s Pizza, disagrees.
“We don’t want to raise prices, so we have to cut costs with employees,” he said. “We can’t cut employees anymore, we’re already as low as we can go, so prices are next.”
Parrillo said Santoro’s lost nearly half of its customers and he fears the sugary drink tax would drive more away.
“If they want to drink soda I think they’re going to continue to drink it,” he said. “If this is about a starting an initiative to get people to do healthier things, I don’t think people are going to do that.”
While Parrillo said the business does support the idea behind the program, he believes now is not the time to consider it.
“I love the message, I love the cause,” he said. “I think fresh fruit and vegetables are an amazing thing … I think it’s an amazing thing to have for families, I just think that it’s not the right time to do this.”
Gov. Dan McKee has already made it clear he does not support raising taxes this year, including the taxes imposed on sugary drinks.
The legislation is currently being held for further study in both the R.I. House and Senate. However, it’s possible the tax could be included in the new state budget, which is due out as soon as later this week.
“We’re really hopeful that it is brought to the floor,” Nunn said. “I think people are really concerned about childhood hunger and the gravity of food insecurity that has ensued in the wake of the COVID pandemic.”