The state’s soft drink industry sent its lobbyist to the legislature Wednesday to denounce a Nashville lawmaker’s proposal to cut the sales tax on food and add a new tax on sugary beverages.
Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, wants to cut 1 percent from the state’s 5.5 percent grocery tax, which is the nation’s third highest. To make up for the lost tax revenue, he would impose a penny-an-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. He says his idea has the added bonus of helping fight Tennessee’s obesity epidemic.
The industry’s lobbyist, Raymond Thomasson, gave a mocking presentation to the House Budget Subcommittee, denying soft drink consumption is causing health problems.
“Soft drinks are not alcohol and they’re not tobacco,” he said. “No one is being arrested by the police for driving a vehicle and abusing the soft drink. I don’t believe there’s been health issue expressed over a second-hand soda.”
People are fat, Thomasson said, because they eat too much and don’t exercise enough.
“I defy anyone to tell me they’ve seen Barney the beagle, Suzy the St. Bernard or Felix the cat laying around drinking soft drinks and getting fat. It’s because they’re not exercising. Their masters are over-feeding their pets.”
The subcommittee didn’t vote on the bill, but decided to wait to consider it after the state budget is adopted at the end of this year’s session.
Thomasson called the new tax “Draconian” and accused Stewart of trying to demonize the soft-drink industry. He said chocolate milk and juice contain more sugar.
But Stewart said, “I’m not trying to demonize any industry. I’m a big Coke drinker. But I don’t mind paying a little more for a Coke so the mother down the street can pay a little less for milk. I think it would make for a more just tax policy for our families.”
Stewart presented his own witnesses, including a Vanderbilt University expert who said 26 percent of the state’s preschoolers now are overweight or obese and pointed out that obesity leads to diabetes, among other diseases. In the latest rankings, Tennessee is the nation’s second fattest state.