Richmond Voters Will Decide on “Soda Tax”

(Rex Sorgatz: Flickr)

(Rex Sorgatz: Flickr)

The people of Richmond will decide in November whether businesses should have to pay a fee for every ounce of sugar-sweetened drinks they sell. In other words, a soda tax is on the ballot November 6th. If voters approve the measure, Richmond would be the first city in California to impose such a fee.

“The city of Richmond has the opportunity to make history,” Harold Goldstein of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy told me today, adding that the campaign will be closely watched nationally. “Cities and states will be watching this across the country. … They too want to put a small tax on sugary drinks and use those funds to mitigate the harmful effects that all these sugary drinks are causing.”

Debate stretched more than four hours at last night’s City Council meeting to determine whether to put two related measures on the ballot. In addition to the penny-per-ounce business license fee, a second measure asks voters if they wish the money to be directed to obesity prevention programs. The measure is an advisory one. If voters approve the new fee, the money it generates goes into the general fund. Richmond’s finance director estimates the fee will generate from $4 million to $8 million for city coffers.

People on both sides turned out in droves. Many people spoke of deep concern about children’s health. About one-third of children in Richmond are obese, according to a report by the Contra Costa Health Services (CCHS). Tracey Rattray, Director of Community Wellness for CCHS attended last night’s meeting. “Sugar sweetened beverages are making us fat,” she told me today in an interview, “and we know that sugar-sweetened beverages are leading cause of empty calories in teenagers’ diets.”

Others worried that the fee could threaten Richmond businesses. Many speakers pointed out that people could easily shop in neighboring cities. Bob Achermann is executive director of the California/Nevada Soft Drink Association. “It’s a substantial tax, and it will have a dramatic impact on businesses in the Richmond area,” he told me in an interview. “It will drive people to buy their beverages outside of Richmond and possibly loss of purchases in other areas. It’s $3 per case and that’s what people will be looking at price-wise.”

But Harold Goldstein believes people will continue to buy locally, but will switch to diet beverages or juice instead of their sugary counterparts. “People are still going to be thirsty,” he says, “They’re still going to be buying those products in their neighborhoods. They’re not going to drive 20 miles to buy some thing. It’s all a charade the beverage industry is using to try to scare people.”

City Council member Jeff Ritterman is a co-sponsor of the bill and acknowledged the campaign will be tough one, noting that last night’s debate highlighted a “real strain” small grocers are feeling. He promised a public education campaign about the harmful effects of sugary drinks. “That’s our strong suit, is our ability to do grassroots organizing. We’re deeply rooted in this community,” he says. “Those who are funding the opposition are coming from the outside and that works against them, but they have a lot of resources. Money doesn’t talk, it swears.”

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