Thirsty West Virginians could soon pay more for soda and other sugary beverages purchased in West Virginia.

And that’s O.K. with the 600 registered voters who were recently part of an American Heart Association poll helping kick off its “A Few Cents Makes Sense” legislative campaign.

It would increase the current tax by at least 1 cent per ounce on soft drinks, energy drinks and fruit juice with added water.

Poll results show it’s already a popular option with state residents who would rather see a higher tax on sugary drinks than cutting jobs or funding to critical state programs.

Increased revenues generated by the tax hike could help with the state’s $500 million budget deficit. Proponents say a 1 cent increase would generate $89 million a year to fill the gap, a 2 cent increase would generate $128 million.

There are also anticipated health benefits to consider, said Christine Compton, government relations director for the American Heart Association.

Data from a Harvard University School of Public Health study shows a 2 cent-per-ounce increase could improve the state’s financial health and residents’ physical wellbeing.

West Virginia’s existing soft drink tax of 1 cent per 16.9 fluid ounces which benefits the West Virginia University School of Medicine. It generated about $15 million last year.

The study found that a tax of 2 cents per ounce would generate $128 annually and lead to West Virginians consuming 197 fewer sugary drinks per person each year.

In addition, there would be a 15 percent reduction in type 2 diabetes. Over 10 years, this would lead to a savings of $161 million in health care costs.

“We see this as an investment in the future of our state. It’s an investment in a healthier workforce and a stronger economy,” she said.

As a long-term benefit, the state will see continued savings in health care costs which will be “upwards of more than $16 million a year.”

New bill language is being finalized and sponsors recruited for this year’s legislative session.

“It has taken a little while because this is more of a complicated issue since there is an existing soda tax that’s about 65 years old. But it includes all kinds of stuff that we wouldn’t typically tax like powders, because our motivation is the decreased consumption of drinks with excess sugar,” she said.

Several other health-related organizations are part this effort including the West Virginians for Affordable Health Care, the American Academy of Pediatrics and local chapters of the American Heart Association.

The West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy officials agree raising the tax would increase revenue while helping decrease state obesity and diabetes’ rates.

An unsuccessful effort last year by Dels. Don Perdue, D-Wayne, and Sean Hornbuckle, D-Cabell, would have used the increased tax monies to provide additional funding for higher education and local health departments.

Charleston attorney Will Swann, who represents the West Virginia Beverage Association, opposes the proposal.

Opponents say it disproportionately impacts lower income individuals and families as opposed to the wealthy.

“And that is the very definition of regressive taxation. It’s just bad public policy. And it’s really a tax on poor people. In light of our fiscal condition that’s something that is unsustainable,” he said.

He also disputes whether this type of tax has historically helped improve obesity rates or lead to better health.
“West Virginia’s experience clearly shows that soda taxes don’t work. We already tax the beverage consumption of our citizens but we remain one of the unhealthiest states in the nation,” he said.

“And you really can’t say that anyone food item is responsible for a person’s obesity, so no one food item should be taxed as a way of improving obesity numbers.”

While the beverage industry is helping consumers make informed decisions about what they are drinking much of that responsibility lies with the individual and should begin at home, he said.