Soda Tax Advocates Undeterred by Election Defeats

The American Beverage Association spent $2.5 million fighting the soda tax initiatives in Richmond and El Monte. (Kristin Farr/KQED)

The American Beverage Association spent $2.5 million fighting the soda tax initiatives in Richmond and El Monte. (Kristin Farr/KQED)

In Tuesday’s election, Richmond voters may have flatly rejected a move to make sodas more expensive, but it seems Richmond city councilman Jeff Ritterman isn’t ready to end his campaign to tax sugary drinks.

“I’m thinking we should do ‘14 in ’14’ — try 14 cities in 2014,” Ritterman said on election night, even as early returns foreshadowed the tax measure’s failure. “Let’s make [the soda industry] fight it in 14 cities.”

That didn’t sound like an idea completely off the top of his head, so I called California Center for Public Health Advocacy and talked to Harold Goldstein. He is a passionate advocate about the health risks of sugar sweetened beverages. His agency is advising cities interested in implementing sugar-sweetened beverage taxes and sponsored two attempts at a statewide tax.

“The first time tobacco taxes were proposed, they lost by large margins, too.”

Goldstein wouldn’t say how many cities he’s working with now — only that in the next few years, “we’ll see a lot more of them.” He said municipalities haven’t been spooked by crushing soda tax defeats in Richmond and El Monte. More than 66 percent of voters in both cities had rejected the penny-per-ounce tax on businesses selling sugary drinks, a cost businesses had been expected to pass on to consumers.

“The first time tobacco taxes were proposed, they lost by large margins, too,” Goldstein said. “The beverage industry is running scared for them to put this kind of money against local measures. They can tell the tide is turning.”

The Washington, D.C.-based American Beverage Association, which represents the likes of Coca Cola and Pepsi Co., poured more than $2.5 million into Richmond and more than $1.3 million into El Monte to defeat the measures. Storefronts and billboards were covered with anti-tax messages.

“They drowned out the voices of local residents who saw these initiatives as a strategy to address childhood obesity and diabetes rates,” Goldstein said.

But Chuck Finnie, spokesman for the beverage industry’s campaign against the Richmond tax, said the money had nothing to do with the measure’s defeat.

“Pointing to the money is really suggesting that people in Richmond can’t think for themselves,” Finnie said Tuesday amid a cheering group of ‘No on N’ supporters. “Voters knew this was going to raise their grocery bills and hurt small businesses while doing nothing to advance the cause of public health.”

Richmond’s soda tax was estimated to bring in more than $2 million. Ironically, a companion measure on the ballot advised city officials to spend that money on youth sports and nutrition programs, and it passed with nearly 64 percent of the vote.