Arguments Take Shape in Battle Over Richmond Soda Tax

(Photo: ciukes/Flickr)

“This product is toxic.”

That’s Richmond Councilman Jeff Ritterman at a council debate in May. The product at issue is not a pesticide or even an oven cleaner; what Ritterman, the former chief of cardiology at Kaiser Medical Center in Richmond was describing is sugar, or more specifically the sugar found in sweetened beverages for sale. Ritterman is the author of the so-called Richmond “soda tax,” voted onto the November ballot by the city council  in May.

If the measure passes, a 1 cent-per-ounce fee will be imposed on all Richmond businesses “that sell any drink containing added sugars, including fruit smoothies, fountain drinks, soft drinks, sweetened teas and energy drinks,” reports the Contra Costa Times. “Markets, food stands, food trucks and restaurants would be expected to use inventory figures to calculate sales and pay the tax, according to city staff reports.”

On Friday’s This Week in Northern California on KQED Public Television, PBS Newshour correspondent Spencer Michels took a look at the proposed tax. Watch the story below…

Here’s Ritterman’s argument, taken from his interview with Spencer Michels:

We have a big problem with childhood obesity in Richmond, as you probably know. And it’s a health disparity issue for us. Fully a third of our Latino fifth- and seventh-graders and a third of our African-American fifth- and seventh-graders are obese…

If you look at where most of our added sugar is coming, it’s coming from the sugar-sweetened beverages. And they’re different from solid foods. Solid foods produce satiety. You get full. You get full when you eat a piece of cake. You don’t get full when you drink the soda, even though they have the same amount of calories.

It’s actually a poison for you, because your liver can’t handle that huge amount of fructose.

The American Beverage Association, the trade group representing “Big Soda,” if you will, obviously takes a dim view of anyone introducing the idea that its product is “poison,” let alone legislating a tax designed to reduce its sales. Here’s what they have to say:

(T)he Beverage Association called the proposed Richmond tax regressive, and added: “It disproportionately hurts the most those who can least afford it. People don’t support soda taxes, don’t believe they will reduce obesity, and don’t trust these taxes will go to pay for childhood obesity programs. They see these new taxes for what they are, a money grab to help pay for more government.

Richmond City Councilman Corky Boozé, one of two votes against putting the tax on the ballot, offers this perspective:

Richmond is a real diverse city. I would say it’s a working, low, economically suppressed community. Most of the people don’t have cars. Kids can’t get out of here. The kids are basically stuck purchasing from this corner store. And the tax is definitely going to affect them.

It’s unfair to people who basically don’t have the means of getting out of their neighborhood store to go into the neighboring communities to be able to avoid that tax.

If we were going to spend our time worrying about something within the city of Richmond that we can fix, we should be working on our streets and we should be working on our job situation…

I think that when we get into the point of being a dictator to people, I think it’s wrong. People are heavy for all kinds of reasons. It could be health. It could be the style of food that they eat at home. I just don’t think the sodas are going to change that.

You can read the complete transcript of the segment on the NewsHour site.

This is going to be quite a battle. The American Beverage Association, should it so desire, has the funds to launch a small war against the measure. Currently, it’s spearheading the Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes, which sports the URL From Mother Jones last week…

ABA’s vice president of public affairs Karen Hanretty declined to put a dollar amount on the support it has given to the campaign, and an idea of how much money they’ve invested in it might not be available until the campaign disclosure information is released at the end of July. But it’s clear that the association can put quite a bit of money into campaigns if it wants; in 2009 it spent nearly $19 million on federal lobbying, its biggest year to date, to keep a soda tax out of the health care reform bill.

You’re going to be hearing much more about the measure in the coming weeks, some of it from us. KQED’s Mina Kim has talked to Councilman Ritterman as well as the ABA’s Hanretty and Judith Morgan, President and CEO of the Richmond Chamber of Commerce, also opposing the tax. We’ll have those interviews later in the week…

  • Anonymous

    The counter-arguments are disingenuous.  Obviously increasing the cost of obesity-promoting items alone discourages obesity.  The efficacy is independent of where the money goes.  The key question should be whether it’s rational to focus on a particular sugar source: does grape juice contribute less than refined sugar?   The proper approach is to reduce the big-ag subsidies which make these ingredients so cheap.