But Challenges Remain for Health Advocacy Group
TELLURIDE – The Telluride Town Council voted 5-2 this week to ask voters in November if they want to impose an excise tax on certain sugar-sweetened beverages sold in Telluride. If the measure is approved, sugary drinks would be taxed one cent per one fluid ounce.
Elisa Marie Overall, director of the Physical Education Program, a grant-funded program that educates Telluride and Norwood K-12 students on healthy diet and lifestyle decisions, first proposed the excise tax on sugary beverages to the council in July. She argued that sugary beverages are a key contributing factor in the nation’s growing obesity rates in children and young adults.
The new revenue, roughly estimated between $200,000 and $400,000 annually, would fund scholarships, physical activity-centered after school programs and gardening programs to educate children on growing fresh vegetables.
The approval was not unanimous: Councilmembers Ann Brady and Thom Carnevale voted against it, each reaffirming their support for afterschool and educational programs (Brady is the former Telluride School District superintendent), but expressing doubt that the measure would pass in the November election, with a defeat possibly setting health promotion programs back.
Brady and Carnevale suggested that Overall gather enough signatures to put the measure on the ballot, rather than asking council to do it.
Councilor Bob Saunders expressed uncertainty before voting for the ballot question, saying, “I’m always supporting programs that help kids not become obese, but I’m not sure a small excise tax on one product will do all that much."
The split on council is a reflection of controversy the proposed excise tax has sparked.
“I have heard more pushback on this issue than on any other issue we’ve discussed in a while,” Carnevale said. “The pushback doesn’t come from just business owners, but from really progressive people in this town.”
And the question has drawn concern from the beverage industry. Christopher Howes, the executive director of the Colorado Beverage Association, a Denver lobbying group, attended the council meeting and told council that the proposed tax would be ineffective in combating growing obesity rates. Citing studies and surveys, Howes argued that certain foods and lifestyle choices are more closely linked to the nation’s epidemic than the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages.
Howes also argued that the tax is a disincentive and he asked, “If the tax decreases consumption of these products, won’t the funding for these programs decrease as well?”
Howes is the president of the Howes Group, a lobbying firm recently ranked as a top “Colorado Influencer” by Campaigns & Elections Magazine.
“I don’t really think 12 additional cents will stop me from buying a Coke at the store,” said Councilmember Kristen Permakoff, “If you’re against this tax, would your organization be willing to donate money to after school programs for our kids?”
“I’d be more than willing to run that up the flagpole,” Howes answered.
Baked in Telluride owner Jerry Greene provided a business owner’s perspective.
“I’m all for after school programs for kids,” Greene said. “I contribute to some programs and I also offer a free slice of pizza to any student that walks to school that day.” But the proposed tax “is really bad for business because it’s just so complicated.” Greene said businesses would have to devote additional resources to tax compliance.
The Telluride town government would not be the first to attempt to disincentive soda purchases. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg attempted to curb New Yorkers’ appetite for sugary beverages by with an outright citywide ban on the sale of the drinks sold in containers larger than 16 oz.
Bloomberg’s ban generated nationwide controversy and drew the efforts of industry groups in New York and Washington D.C. to fight it. A panel of the New York State Supreme Court’s Appellate Division recently invalidated the ban, on the grounds that the Bloomberg administration sidestepped the New York City Council by imposing the ban by way of the city’s Board of Health – whose members were appointed by Bloomberg.