TOPEKA — Levying a tax on sugar-filled drinks could help fatten Kansas coffers, but opponents warned that it would help the state shed jobs, not weight.
The Senate Assessment and Taxation Committee took testimony Wednesday on a proposal that would add 1 cent tax per teaspoon of sugar in drinks such as soda pop and energy drinks. On a 12-ounce can of soda that could mean a 10-cent increase, netting the state about $90 million a year.
Chairman Sen. Les Donovan, R-Wichita, said the panel would likely scale the tax back to 0.04 of a cent per teaspoon when it debates a bundle of tax increases today.
Public health officials like the idea of raising taxes on soft drinks, saying an increase in the cost of sugary drinks would help decrease Kansans' expanding waist lines.
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"We know this is not a necessary part of anyone's diet," said State Health Officer Jason Eberhart-Phillips, a physician who also heads the Kansas Department of Health and Environment's health division.
There is solid evidence that sugar-laden drinks contribute to increasing obesity rates, he said. The state pays for that in increased health care costs.
Opponents, including hundreds of workers and drivers from Kansas bottling plants, packed the committee room beyond capacity.
Donovan joked that the committee's meetings, which usually are not so well attended, finally found a way to attract a crowd.
The committee is looking at raising multiple taxes —including the state sales tax and taxes on cigarettes and alcohol — to help plug the state's $400 million budget deficit for the 2011 fiscal year, which starts July 1.
Opponents said that increasing a tax on sugar in drinks could cause layoffs and cut into profit margins at a time that business is already struggling.
Retailers also would struggle to apply the tax said Michael Beal, chief financial officer of Ball's Food Stores, which has 19 stores in Kansas.
"Retailers don't know how much sugar is in a drink," he said.
The idea would not combat obesity, several opponents said.
"You can tax people to change their behavior, but only for so long," warned Susie Coleman, who works for Cater Energy Corp. which represents over 200 gas and convenience stores in the state.
She predicted increasing the cost on drinks' sugar content would send customers fleeing to neighboring states for their soda pop and energy drinks.