By Daniel Weintraub
A lot of people rolled their eyes when New York City banned the use of trans fats in restaurant meals a few years ago. Some called it “nanny government.” But now the federal Food and Drug Administration has ruled that the fats are unhealthy and announced plans to phase them out of processed foods.
Could sugar-sweetened drinks be next?
An outright ban isn’t in the cards. But a broad coalition of California public health groups is trying to slap a special tax on sugary drinks to finance anti-obesity programs aimed at children.
The idea isn’t new. The proposal has been floated before in the Legislature but never made it to the governor’s desk. Local measures in the cites of El Monte in Los Angeles County and Richmond in the San Francisco Bay Area failed at the ballot box. But a recent poll showing nearly 70 percent of voters supporting such a tax if it were linked to children’s programs has given supporters renewed confidence in their cause.
Senate Bill 622 would place a penny-per-ounce tax on sodas, teas and energy drinks, raising an estimated $1.7 billion a year. The money would go into a California Children’s Health Promotion Fund, to be used for physical education, health and nutrition programs in the schools, and grants to support community-based health and wellness efforts.
Sen. Bill Monning, a Monterey County Democrat who is the author of the bill, says the proposal would work in two ways. It would reduce demand for sugary drinks by raising their price while also raising money for health and education campaigns. A similar approach is credited with reducing smoking rates in California to among the lowest in the nation.
Monning says the tax is necessary to combat the ubiquitous marketing campaigns of the beverage industry.
“We are up against massive advertising budgets that target young people and use high-profile celebrities to promote these products,” he says. “We’re not on a level playing field. There is a cost shift, from the manufacturers making a profit off these products to the taxpayers having to shoulder the burden of the response, from diabetes to tooth decay and heart disease. The list goes on and on. So there’s an important role for government to play in the public health arena to educate and try to prevent that cost shift. We’re trying to protect the health of young people and protect California taxpayers from these costs.”
Critics say the idea unfairly targets low-income people (why not tax Starbucks Frappuccinos?) and probably won’t achieve its goals. The beverage industry argues, for example, that if the price of soda goes up, consumers will simply shift to other foods and beverages to get the calories they want to consume. The industry also contends that obesity has increased in the US even as per capita consumption of soda has been declining.
But Monning and other supporters say poverty, soda and obesity go together, in part because calories in soft drinks are cheap, and in part because low-income people tend to also have lower levels of education.
“It’s not limited to low income communities, but you have a convergence of poverty, limited buying power for food, and people who do access less expensive and highly advertised products, with that advertising often targeting minority and low-income communities,” he says. “Often, lower education levels connect with high poverty levels, so there is less of an ability to access good health information and make good choices for family health.”
Monning notes that Mexico’s lawmakers just voted to impose a peso-per-liter tax, or eight cents, on sugar-sweetened beverages. Mexico is poor and, obviously, heavily Latino, so how can California’s would-be soda taxers be accused of being anti-poor and anti-Latino? Mexico is reported to be the second largest per-capita consumer of soda in the world. Seven in ten of its residents are overweight or obese.
Still, Monning’s bill probably faces an uphill battle. While it has passed two committees, he must get the measure through the powerful Appropriations Committee by the end of January in order for it to survive. And if he clears that hurdle, Monning must then win the support of two-thirds of the members of each house of the Legislature and the signature of Gov. Jerry Brown.
“It’s a big lift,” Monning acknowledged. But even if he fails this time, he said, he and his allies will not retreat.
“Win, lose or draw,” he said, “there is a statewide campaign that is going to continue.”
Daniel Weintraub has covered public policy in California for 25 years. He is editor of the California Health Report at www.healthycal.org. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org