FAIRMONT — West Virginia has a high adult obesity rate and some groups are going to lobby the legislature to try to change that. 

Local chapters of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Heart Association, the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy and West Virginians for Affordable Health Care plan on lobbying the state Legislature to impose a tax increase of at least 1 cent per ounce on sugary drinks including soft drinks, energy drinks and fruit juice with added sugar, according to a Jan. 7 Charleston Gazette-Mail article.

“One of the things we’ve learned over the years, especially from tobacco taxes, we know when prices goes up consumption goes down, as long as it’s a significant increase,” government relations manager for the West Virginia Chapter of the American Heart Association Christine Compton said.

West Virginia already has a soft drink tax of one cent per 16.9 fluid ounces, which was enacted in 1951. The tax is to benefit the West Virginia University School of Medicine, according to state code.

West Virginia has the highest consumption of sugary drinks in the country, according to You’re the Cure, an initiative of the American Heart Association and the American Stroke Association.

The portion sizes of soft drinks has increased over the years. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the average size of a soda has increased 6.5 ounces since the 1950s to 16.2 ounces, the article said.

Opponents of the sugary drink tax argue that the current tax has not stopped consumption of soda, so neither would a new tax.

The state’s current tax is relatively insignificant, and most people don’t realize it is there. The proposed tax on sugary drinks could bring in an estimated $89 million a year at one cent per ounce, Compton said in the article.

The State of Obesity is a project of the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that has released a report for the last 13 years about obesity in America.

According to The State of Obesity, in 2015 West Virginia ranked second in the country, along with Mississippi and Alabama, for highest adult obesity rate at 35.6 percent. Louisiana was the highest with 36.2 percent.

The only time there was a decrease in the adult obesity rate in West Virginia was from 2014 to 2016. In 2014, 35.7 percent of adults in West Virginia were obese, according to The State of Obesity.

In 2014, of the 2- to 4-year-olds who participate in Women, Infants and Children (WIC) in the state, 16.4 percent were obese. In 2011, 18.5 percent of 10- to 17-year-olds in West Virginia were obese. In 2015, 17.9 percent of high schoolers in West Virginia were obese, according to the State of Obesity.

In 2015, West Virginia ranked second in the nation, with 14.5 percent of adults in the state having diabetes. In 2015, the state ranked first in the nation, with 42.7 percent of adults having hypertension.

Politicians from Marion County weighed in on the proposed sugary drink tax.

Delegate Mike Caputo, D-Marion, said that the idea of a sugary drink tax has been around for several years.

“Before I commit to any type of new tax at all I want to hear the governor’s plan,” Caputo said. “I want to hear what his agenda is on solving the budget woes for West Virginia. We have Republican leadership in the House and Senate now, so they’re in charge, and they have to have an agenda that will act in a financially responsible manner for the state of West Virginia.”

He would like to see statistics from other states that have enacted a sugary drink tax to see if it has reduced sugar consumption and reduced obesity, Caputo said.

Sen. Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, also commented on the proposed tax.

“I think that this session obviously with the general revenue deficit we’re going to come up with, everything’s in play,” he said. “The problem that we’re going to have is that you have to look at taxes systemically.”

Where the money raised by a tax goes to is part of the debate, Prezioso said.

“I certainly see the benefits of taxing sugary drinks and things of that sort to put back into health-related issues,” he said. “Saying that I’m in support of tax increases on certain things — you’d have to wait and see the internal package that you’re going to put forth.”

He applauds the efforts of the groups that are lobbying for the sugary drink tax, Prezioso said.

“When you look at West Virginia you have to realize we are one of the most unhealthy states in the union because of obesity, Type 2 diabetes and things of that sort,” Prezioso said. “I would certainly be very sympathetic to their cause.”

Email Michelle Dillon at mdillon@timeswv.com.

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