Posted on September 10, 2013

On September 10, NEHI Executive Director Valerie Fleishman testified at the Massachusetts State House before the Joint Committee on Public Health at a hearing on House Bill 2634, An Act to Promote Healthy People and a Healthy Economy in Massachusetts, filed by Representative Kay Khan. Read her full testimony below:

Good morning Chairman Kaufman, Chairman Rodrigues, and members of the Committee.  My name isValerie Fleishman, and I am Executive Director of NEHI, a nonprofit health policy institute dedicated to advancing innovation in health and health care.  I am also here today as co-chair of the Healthy People/Healthy Economy coalition, convened by NEHI and the Boston Foundation.  Our coalition brings leaders together from the health care, business, philanthropic, public health and academic communities to advance policies and practices to make Massachusetts a national leader in health promotion and wellness. 

I am delighted to be here this morning to provide testimony for House Bill 2634, An Act to Reduce Childhood Obesity, filed by Representative Kay Khan.

One of the challenges we face is the obesity epidemic in Massachusetts. While our rates of adult obesity are among the lowest in the country, we now rank behind 21 other states in our rates of childhood obesity.  When it comes to our children, the Commonwealth is failing to tackle the obesity epidemic fully.

I’d like to focus my remarks on the strong research base and data that show why the priorities laid out in House Bill 2634 are linked together and the important role tax policy can play in addressing this issue. 

In our 2013 Healthy People/Healthy Economy Report Card, we highlight research that clearly shows there are two important policies where Massachusetts falls far behind the rest of the country.  The first is on continuing to support a sales tax exemption on sugar sweetened beverages, where we are now one of only 16 states in the nation that impose no form of tax on these items.  The second is by not requiring a minimum daily number of minutes for youth physical activity in our schools.  National guidelines now recommend 60 minutes of physical activity for children each day.  But Massachusetts law today has no set minimum standard and even if we did, there is little means of funding it.

Today, there is strong research demonstrating the direct linkage between the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and the obesity epidemic, particularly in our children.  The Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, for example, reports that for each can of sugar sweetened beverages consumed a day, a child’s risk of becoming obese increases by 60 percent.  Today, the largest single source of calories for children comes directly from sugar sweetened beverages. We know, for example, that one quarter of Boston high school students drink soda daily and 80 percent drink it at least once a week. 

Since the sales tax exemption was put in place in 1966, Americans on average are now 24 pounds heavier than we were back then.  Data show that a significant portion of that 24 pound weight gain has been attributable to sugar sweetened beverages, not surprising, as average consumption sizes have increased to a 16 ounce soda that now contains 14 teaspoons of sugar. 

While most states do impose a tax and still others are considering an excise tax, Massachusetts grants favorable tax status to these products.  But times have changed since 1966 and tax policy should keep pace given that we now understand that sugar sweetened beverages are essentially liquid sugar and directly linked to the growing obesity epidemic.

We also know that lack of physical activity is a major contributor to the obesity epidemic and to lower academic performance in our children.  Yet, Massachusetts youth have among the lowest rates in the nation of participation of regular physical activity.  Only 18 percent of Massachusetts schools offer daily gym classes, compared to 30 percent nationwide. School physical activity programs have been dramatically cut over the past 20 years and at a time when they are most needed, particularly as children are no longer walking to and from school, no longer playing outside after school and childhood obesity rates are the highest they have ever been. 

The Massachusetts Department of Revenue estimates that lifting the sales tax exemption could generate more than $52 million in revenue a year.  That revenue alone could provide approximately $30,000 to every elementary school in the state on an annual basis to fund youth physical activity programs. 

We’re here before the Revenue Committee today because removing the sales tax exemption on sugar sweetened beverages can achieve a number of important goals at once.  If this legislation were adoptedMassachusettscould:

  • Come in line with 34 other states in the nation by removing the sales tax exemption that was put in place 47 years ago;
  • Convey an important and timely message that government and policy makers are concerned about public health by demonstrating that favorable tax status for these products no longer makes sense;
  • Raise a considerable and sustainable amount of revenue to fund the Prevention and Wellness Trust that the legislature established last year;
  • Specifically target these funds to support programs that provide at least 30 minutes of physical activity in our schools;
  • and by doing so have an immediate and measurable impact on the health of our children.

Shortly, you’ll hear from experts about the scientific harms of sugar sweetened beverages and the scientific benefits of youth physical activity programs that are underfunded and underutilized in our schools today.  You’ll also hear directly from frontline pediatricians at Boston Medical Center and Boston Children’s Hospital who see every day the devastating impact that sugar sweetened beverages are having on our young and most vulnerable children.

Bottom line, the opportunity cost of keeping this sales tax exemption in place is huge, for all of us and particularly for our children.    

Thank you to Representative Kahn for her leadership on this critical issue and to the Committee for the opportunity to testify today.  We’re happy to take questions.


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