Five Questions With: Dr. Amy Nunn

Dr. Amy Nunn, director of the Rhode Island Public Health Institute, is heading NourishRI’s campaign to levy a 1.5-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks. Revenue generated from the tax would fund a state program to provide a 50% discount on fresh produce for Rhode Islanders with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. 

Nunn discusses proposed legislation that is in front of lawmakers now and the support that the measure has received from top health officials in the Ocean State. 

PBN: What is the current status of the legislation (H5715 and S0327)?

NUNN: H5715, sponsored by Rep. Jean Philippe [D-Pawtucket], and S0327, sponsored by Sen. Valarie Lawson [D-East Providence], were both introduced in February, and are both currently being considered in the House and Senate finance committees.

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In short, this proposed legislation would implement a small, 1.5-cent-per-ounce tax on unhealthy sugary drinks, and earmark the funds generated through the tax to create a statewide Retail SNAP Incentive Program. The Retail SNAP Incentive Program would provide low-income families across the state with a universal 50% discount on fresh produce at grocery stores when they pay with their SNAP benefits. This program has the potential to help more than 144,000 residents, including more than 46,000 children and more than 30,000 seniors who rely on SNAP benefits to afford the healthy fruits and vegetables their families need and deserve.

Between the public hearings for these bills that featured impassioned testimony from dozens of Rhode Islanders, and the number of people taking the time out of their day to contact their local legislators, it is clear these bills have earned enough support, and generated enough conversation across the entire state, to deserve the transparent, comprehensive debate that comes with a full vote on the House and Senate floors.

PBN: Numerous Rhode Islanders testified in favor of the bill during a House Finance Committee meeting on May 13. Who are some of those who are showing support?

NUNN: I’ve been inspired by the groundswell of support this issue has generated. Support has come from leaders in the state’s public health community, such as Brown University’s Dr. Ashish Jha; executives in the grocery industry, such as Urban Greens Co-Op General Manager John Santos; children’s health experts such as Rhode Island Kids Count Executive Director Elizabeth Burke Bryant; and leaders in Rhode Island’s Latino communities such as Progreso Latino’s Mario Bueno.

Most importantly, though, support has come from hundreds of Rhode Island constituents who have simply raised their hands to help. These advocates are proactively seeking out ways to help address Rhode Island’s food insecurity issues and make our communities a little bit healthier. It’s been a true pleasure to work with such a diverse, passionate group of community advocates, and we look forward to continuing these efforts.

PBN: What types of drinks are included in this measure?

NUNN: The tax would apply to beverages sweetened with added extra sugar, such as non-diet sodas, energy drinks, some sports drinks and others. These sugar-sweetened beverages are the leading source of added sugar in Americans’ diets, and there is extensive research that shows a clear link between these unhealthy beverages and diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and more.

Taxes on sugary drinks like the one proposed in Rhode Island have already been implemented in 42 countries around the world and six major metropolitan American cities. In each of these cases, studies show that these taxes lead to an almost immediate decrease in the consumption of these unhealthy drinks, and an immediate switch to water. For example: In Philadelphia, just six months after implementing its tax, the probability of regularly drinking soda fell by 25%, while water consumption rose by 44%.

It’s a simple fact: If we’re able to curb the consumption of these unhealthy sugary drinks, the overall health and well-being of our entire state will improve.

PBN: Will drinks sold in restaurants, coffee shops and the like be taxed, or does the bill limit its focus to drinks sold in grocery and convenience stores?

NUNN: All sugary drinks will be taxed, regardless of where they are purchased. The 1.5-cent-per-ounce tax will be leveraged on beverage distributors. Distributors usually raise the price for restaurant, grocery or convenience stores, and those businesses then raise the price to their customers – the general public. It is important to note that this bill includes a small-business exemption to exclude Rhode Island’s smaller companies from the impacts of this tax.

Opponents of the tax sometimes claim this will hurt restaurants and grocery stores and lead to job loss. However, there is no scientific or economic evidence from other cities to support this claim. In fact, Berkeley [in California] gained 469 food sector jobs after the tax was implemented. Restaurants have an average 80-90% profit margin on soda, meaning for the average $3 that you pay for a fountain soda, the restaurant makes $2.40 to $2.70 in profit, so they are well-insulated from this tax.

Additionally, because this tax will fund the Retail SNAP Incentive Program, we estimate an infusion of $30 million into the grocery industry to support our retailers throughout the state.

PBN: If the legislation passes, how much of a difference would it make to recipients of the SNAP program?

NUNN: One in four Rhode Islanders is now struggling to put food on the table; these are the highest rates of food insecurity since the Great Depression. Children in our state are going hungry. Chronic conditions and diseases like diabetes and heart disease are also skyrocketing. Healthy, nutrient-rich, fresh food has become alarmingly inaccessible and unaffordable for an unacceptable number of our neighbors.

This is a crisis in every sense of the word, and we need to take action to address it.

The Retail SNAP Incentive Program this legislation proposes to create would make an enormous, immediate impact on tens of thousands of Rhode Islanders and their families. This program would provide SNAP-eligible Rhode Islanders with a 50% discount in the produce aisle at every grocery store in the state, making it easier for them to bring home the fresh food their families need, want and deserve.

Elizabeth Graham is a PBN contributing writer.