Tax on Soda a Tough Sell for Some California Lawmakers

FILE – This Sept. 21, 2016 file photo shows soft drink and soda bottles displayed in a refrigerator at El Ahorro market in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – California lawmakers opened the can on a statewide soda tax Tuesday, claiming higher prices for soda and other sugary drinks will help combat a nationwide obesity epidemic.

“The science is overwhelming – California is facing a public health crisis,” said Assemblyman Richard Bloom, the LA-area Democrat who brought Assembly Bill 104 forward Tuesday. “Over 3 million Californians are currently diabetic.”

Bloom and other lawmakers said communities of color are more than twice as likely as their white counterparts to contract diabetes, which many public health professionals blame on poor diet and heavy consumption of sugar.

“Sugary drinks are the single largest source of sugar in the American diet,” Bloom said

The bill would tax sugary drinks like soda, tea, sports and energy drinks at 2 cents per fluid ounce. The revenue would be used to fund public health initiatives while making healthier alternatives like water more affordable, particularly in communities where access to clean and healthy water is problematic.

Bloom said the soda tax was poised to raise $2-3 billion annually. Nonpartisan analysis predicts soda consumption would drop by 15% to 35%.  

Soda industry representatives decried the tax, saying it scapegoated the industry for an obesity problem with a multitude of contributing factors while hurting consumer choice and retail businesses.

“People consume an average of 423 more calories per day than they did 30 years ago,” said Fredericka McGee, vice-president of the American Beverage Association. “Most of the reason for the 38% increase has to do with more starch and fat in the American diet.”

Many of the lawmakers agreed the soda tax intrudes too much on consumer choice and that soda gets too much of the blame for the obesity problem.

“The important thing we are missing is the lack of exercise kids are doing,” said Assemblyman Heath Flora, R-Ripon. “You can’t just tax everything.”

Democrat Freddie Rodriguez of Pomona agreed.

“There is more to the problem than just drinking soda,” he said.

Bloom said part of the money raised by the tax would be used for education programs to encourage a healthy lifestyle, including increased exercise for kids and others.

“This is not nanny government,” he said. “It’s sound public policy that focuses on prevention and health care that will make our state healthier and our citizens live longer.”

Democrat Rob Bonta of Alameda has also brought forward a soda tax bill which seeks to prevent marketing and promotions subsidized by the soda industry that end up making sugary drinks more affordable than other healthier options like water.

In the end, both bills passed the committee on an 8-5 vote and will now head to the full Assembly. But whether they can pass muster with the full Legislature – or if Californians have a stomach for a soda tax – is an open question.

A poll funded by the beverage association Tuesday found 60% of likely 2020 voters in California oppose new state taxes on sugary drinks. Only 37% of the respondents support the tax, according to the poll conducted by San Francisco-based David Binder Research.

However, a Harvard poll conducted in 2017 found 57% of respondents supported higher taxes on sugary drinks to help fund health and education programs, with 39% opposed.

Other states like Connecticut and Rhode Island are considering taxes on sugary drinks.

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