Health Advocates, Soda Magnates Battle Over Sugary Drink Tax

OLYMPIA, Wash. (CN) – Just months after the city of Seattle passed a tax on sugary drinks, health advocates and soda magnates are firing up efforts to influence Washington voters on similar taxes in the future.

In a Monday petition filed in Thurston County Superior Court, the American Heart Association appealed the ballot title of I-1634 that they say deceives voters, would prevent Washington cities from passing a sugary drinks tax and would contribute to obesity.

In Washington state, citizens are able to put an issue on the ballot if they are able to collect 259,622 signatures in support of their proposed measure.  Supporters of I-1634 say they are hoping to have the measure on the ballot to Washington voters this November.

The American Heart Association’s petition asks the court to change Initiative 1634’s wording, arguing that the ballot language that seeks to prevent a tax on “groceries” is misleading.

The plaintiffs also include the Childhood Obesity Prevention Coalition and the Anti-Hunger and Nutrition Coalition, who said in the petition that the initiative is an effort to ensure that taxes on sugary beverages, like the one passed in Seattle last year, cannot be replicated in other parts of the state.

“I-1634 purports to keep ‘groceries’ affordable by prohibiting any new or increased local taxes, fees, or assessments on ‘groceries’ after January 15, 2018 unless the tax, fee, or assessment applies generally to businesses and does not classify by grocery type,” the petition states. “But I-1634 really is an effort to stop other Washington jurisdictions from adopting soda taxes similar to Seattle’s.”

Last year Seattle passed a 1.75 cent tax per ounce on drinks with “one or more caloric sweeteners”, like soda, energy drinks and sports drinks. The tax, which started on Jan. 1, will bring an anticipated $15 million into the city coffers this year. Some of the funds will be spent on a “Fresh Bucks” program that provides low-income families with vouchers to buy fruits and vegetables at farmers markets and grocery stores, according to a report in the Seattle Times.

Promoters of I-1634, which include the Coca-Cola Company and Red Bull America, have already launched an aggressive media campaign promoting the initiative, noting additional taxes like Seattle’s hurt working families and may spread to other food items.

“Washington State’s tax structure already unfairly places a greater burden on low and middle income families than it does the wealthy,” said I-1634 spokesman Jim Desler. “Taxes on food and beverages would only make it worse.  Raising taxes on groceries would especially hurt low and fixed income families who cannot afford more taxes. It makes it even more difficult for them to earn a living or pay grocery bills. There is a real concern that taxes like Seattle’s beverage tax may be repeated and expanded throughout the state to include food items. Pro-tax advocacy groups are pushing for high taxes on everyday foods and beverages, including meats, dairy products, eggs and beverages. These taxes hurt small businesses and their employees.”

The initiative backers also argue that taxes on sugary beverages don’t combat obesity or contribute to overall health.

“Taxes on grocery items have never been shown to improve public health,” the sponsors said. “A study on the Berkeley, CA beverage tax by tax proponents found that the tax resulted in an average reduction of taxed beverage consumption of 6 calories per person per day, but an increase five times larger in calories from untaxed beverages.”

Instead of calling for a prohibition on taxing “groceries,” the AHA wants the wording of I-1634 changed to say a tax on any “raw or processed foods or beverages.” The AHA said it feels this wording would make the ballot language “fair, impartial and accurate.”

The AHA also noted it supports the Seattle tax as a “forward-thinking policy.”

“AHA believes in the power and courage of local governments to address their communities’ needs with innovative, forward-thinking policy solutions, just as Seattle did by passing a small tax on sugary drinks to address the overconsumption of these beverages and the related incidence of debilitating chronic disease,” the AHA petition said.

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