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Vermont takes on obesity

Montpelier, Vermont - February 17, 2010

Obesity is a growing problem in Vermont, and so are medical complications like diabetes. And Vermont's attorney general is starting an initiative that may lead to a new tax on the main culprit, sugar-sweetened beverages.

Vermont officials say obesity is becoming an epidemic in spite of efforts to educate about good nutrition. That's why Attorney General Bill Sorrell has convened an initiative that may lead to punitive taxation to force a decrease in demand for fattening foods like soft drinks -- the way taxes on cigarettes caused a reduction in smoking rates. A group convened by Sorrell will recommend ways to combat the problem.

Kelly Brownell directs the Yale University Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. "A chronic disease like obesity -- we've never seen this kind of increase in rates," he said.

Brownell told the group that the problem is nationwide and that 58 percent of Vermont adults are overweight or obese. He said the government is taking the lead to turn the trend around. "The federal government is quite involved in the obesity issue," he said. "I was at the White House last week for first lady (Michelle) Obama's announcement about the obesity initiative. This was unprecedented."

Brownell says the largest single cause of obesity is sugar-sweetened drinks. Most schools around Vermont have gotten rid of soft drinks in favor of juices. Others have introduced nutritious foods. But Brownell says education by itself is not working. And Sorrell agrees. Sorrell told WCAX News, "A lot has been going on in Vermont for the last several years. But when you see that we've had a 60 percent increase in adult obesity rates in the last 10 years despite these efforts, you know that we've got to do more. And that's what this initiative is gong to try to do."

The Vermont Grocers Association listened to the presentation. This is not the first time that there have been proposals to tax junk food. Jim Harrison, the Grocers' main lobbyist, said, "I'm not sure that this is the environment where we want to just start adding selective food taxes. You know, they are very regressive. It's sort of hinting that Montpelier knows best, you know. We're going to have the food police out there deciding what items should and shouldn't be taxed."

Soda drinkers were less than thrilled to hear about the idea of a soda tax. They say they understand the premise behind the tax but feel it is unfair.

"It makes sense it's just a bummer for those of us that don't really have that issue but drink a lot of soda," said Patrick Cote-Wurzler, an admitted drinker of "a lot" of soda.

"I'm not very happy with that I would say. I would prefer to just keep paying what I'm paying I drink these a lot so it would be a lot of money per year," added Jackson Boutin while buying a liter of Mountain Dew.

Sorrell says it's not likely that the tax would be pushed this year, although there is legislationthat would target soft drinks for higher taxes. He's looking for action next year -- after the group that met for his initiative returns with a report and recommendations later, this coming fall. 

Andy Potter - WCAX News

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