SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. (WPRI) — The Rhode Island Public Health Institute (RIPHI) on Wednesday put “strong support” behind legislation to establish a tax on sugary drinks in Rhode Island.

If enacted, the bill introduced by Sen. Valarie Lawson and Rep. Jean Philippe Barros would designate a portion of the revenues generated to help expand access to nutritious meals for Rhode Islanders struggling to put food on the table.

The University of Rhode Island, along with the RIPHI and Grow Smart Rhode Island, hosted a virtual conference Wednesday morning to examine food insecurity in the state.

The conference featured two panels focusing on a sugary drink tax as a funding mechanism for the Retail SNAP Incentive Program and examining food access as it relates to transportation.

“This important legislation will help alleviate hunger and promote healthy eating across
Rhode Island,” RIPHI executive director Dr. Amy Nunn said. “We are committed to developing innovative and long-term solutions to Rhode Island’s most pressing public health problems.”

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 does not apply to products without added sugars, such as diet sodas or bottled water.

In last year’s Status Report on Hunger, the Rhode Island Community Food Bank found one in four households in Rhode Island lacks adequate food, which is the highest level of food insecurity recorded in the state in 20 years.

A portion of the revenue from the tax would provide SNAP recipients with a minimum $0.50 credit on their EBT Card for each $1 spent on fresh fruits and vegetables at participating retailers to encourage the purchase of healthy foods.

“I’m proud that this legislation will work to address major public health issues in Rhode Island
by reducing the amount of sugary drinks consumed, all while providing healthier incentives for
our most vulnerable population,” Lawson said.

According to Healthy Food America, a sugary drinks tax can reduce sales of those beverages, improve health equity and reduce the rate of costly and preventable diseases. The State of Childhood Obesity also reports that in Rhode Island, obesity rates nearly tripled from 11.1% in 1990 to 30% in 2019.

“The pandemic has brought many things to light, particularly around food access and health
disparities in our most vulnerable populations, and we need to make the appropriate investments
to help correct this,” Barros said.