Richmond Soda Tax Campaign in Full Swing

By Mina Kim

Jeff Ritterman, Richmond city councilman who is championing the soda tax, on the campaign trail. (Photo: Mina Kim)

On MacDonald Avenue, the city of Richmond’s main drag, Jeff Ritterman is pulling a little red wagon that holds a plastic water cooler jug filled with forty pounds of sugar. Ritterman says that’s the average amount a child in Richmond consumes each year, just from drinking sodas. “The child gets overweight,” he says, “and the arteries of the heart fill up with bad fat. And that’s a real health problem.”

Ritterman is a retired cardiologist who likes to wear his graying hair in a ponytail. He’s also a city councilman and the man behind a November ballot measure that would make Richmond one of the first cities in the nation to impose a penny-per-ounce tax on sodas and other sugar-sweetened drinks.

According to a report from Contra Costa Health Services [PDF], more than half of Richmond’s children are overweight or obese.

At a shopping plaza, Ritterman’s wagon catches the attention of passerby Michael Bracey.

“I know what that sugar will do,” Bracey says. “It’ll swell you up and once you get swole up you going to get like you said, diabetes, high blood pressure or heart failure, you going to have one or the other. That’s what this sugar going to do, so I think it’s a good cause that you fighting right now, yeah, I’m behind it.”

Shopper Raymond Landry disagrees. Holding a tall can of Arizona iced tea, Landry says the tax hurts those who can least afford to pay it. And government, he says, shouldn’t control what he has a right to do.

“I understand it’s an effort to promote health,” Landry says. “But at the same time, it comes at the expense of business, and there has to be a balance between the two.”

That’s how opponents of the tax are casting this proposal. The tax would be imposed as a business license fee and would require any retailer that sells drinks with added sugar — including energy drinks and sweetened teas — to tally up all ounces sold and write a check to the city.

For weeks, 26-year-old, Richmond native Rosa Lara has been mobilizing local business owners against the measure. City officials project the tax could raise up to 8 million dollars a year to be used for things like more sports fields, nutrition education, and other anti-obesity programs geared at Latino and African American youth. But Lara says most of the people she talks to don’t believe that’s how the money will be spent

“When I approach the people to let them know what’s going on it’s to educate them on how it’s going to affect the businesses and where the money’s going,” Lara says. “The money is going to a general fund. There’s no strings attached to that money.”

Lara says she’s already signed up more than a hundred business owners against the tax. Her anti-tax signs can be found on the windows and shopping aisles of several businesses on 23rd Street, a hub of Latino-owned shops. Lara says business owners worry their customers will go to neighboring cities for cheaper sodas.

At La Raza Market, where cases of soda are stacked counter high, Alejandra Nava, a cashier, says trying to track all ounces sold could mean having to hire another person.

But what makes the outgoing Lara a particularly formidable tax foe is that she has the deep pockets of the American Beverage Association — the trade group that represents Pepsi Co, Coke and others — paying her for her work.

Karen Hanretty is the group’s vice-president of public affairs. “The American Beverage Association always opposes discriminatory taxes on our products,” she says. “We think it is fundamentally unfair to single out any soft drink as a unique contributor to obesity.”

But Harold Goldstein, head of the nonprofit California Center for Public Health Advocacy which supports the Richmond tax, says the real reason the soda industry is invested in the measure’s defeat is to discourage other cities from following suit. Late last month, the Southern California city of El Monte voted to put a soda tax measure — modeled on Richmond’s — on its November ballot. The Palo Alto Daily News reports that officials in San Mateo County are researching the idea of a soda tax for unincorporated areas of the county.

Goldstein draws an interesting parallel to another product, challenged on health issues. “I think the soda industry is in the long run going to really go the way of the tobacco industry,” he says, “that people are going to begin to see that the soda industry has one thing in mind and that is to protect their profits.”

Back at his council office, Jeff Ritterman says he knows he has a tough fight on his hands but he says he’s determined to do this for the health his community — especially the kids who are so overweight.  “Everybody loves their children and when we put the issue of children’s health front and center and we let people know what we’re doing then we get people’s support.

Then Ritterman begins working the phones — in his quest for votes this November.

Listen to Mina Kim’s report:

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  • Charles Smith

    When Richmond residents
    stood up to Chevron several years ago they made national news. Richmond voters
    taxed Chevron and stopped them from processing heavy crude without adequate
    environmental protections. Today Richmond is again making national news with a proposed
    regressive tax on sugar drinks. On the surface, considering the obesity rate
    among economically challenged residents, this may look like an attempt to help people
    develop healthier lifestyles by slowing down their consumption of sugar drinks.
    Under closer inspection, however, it reveals a callous middle class bias
    against the poor.

    The tax was authored and
    promoted by Richmond Council Member Dr. Jeff Ritterman, the former head of the
    Richmond Kaiser Cardiology Department. It is Dr. Ritterman’s current position
    that sugar drinks are responsible for the high rate of obesity in Richmond’s
    minority community and, therefore, it is in the community’s interest to
    discourage the consumption of such drinks by adding a hefty City tax on them.
    Interestingly enough, in a 2008 National Geographic Special, “Stress: Portrait
    of a Killer,” Dr. Ritterman expressed a broader view, stating that the daily
    stress of being poor is what leads to health problems. The relationship between
    the stress of poverty and obesity was one of the primary points in the
    documentary. So what could change in four years that would lead Dr. Ritterman
    to change his emphasis and focus exclusively on the issue of sugar drinks? I
    would suggest that he is leading his middle class constituency to take the
    reactionary position of blaming the victims and he is doing so for political
    reasons.

    Where the poorest
    members of Richmond live there are no supermarkets but only liquor stores and
    quick-stops. This has been the case for years. Richmond has a very high rate of
    unemployment particularly amongst its minority population. Richmond has a high
    rate of drive-by shootings and homicides. Its schools are not known for their
    high academic performance and they have been cash-strapped for years. These are
    many of the daily stressors under which the poorest members of Richmond must
    live. As a result of these and other stressors they suffer from serious stress-related
    health problems. The abuse of sugar drinks is a symptom, not the cause, of these
    health issues which affect a large portion of Richmond’s residents. There is a proven correlation between poverty
    and serious health problems including obesity. You don’t need to be a scientist
    or a doctor to Google “what states have the highest rates of obesity?” and then
    Google “which are the poorest states in the US?” to see that the results
    indicate the very same states. Clearly, the relationship between serious health
    problems and rates of poverty is glaring. Health issues are class issues.

    So then, why would these
    obvious social facts lead “progressives” to support a regressive sugar tax in
    the first place? The answer is that capitalism teaches us to attribute our
    economic problems to our own inadequacies rather than to the economic system
    itself. Rather than fight capitalism we blame the most oppressed members of our
    society. We blame them for the consequences of being poor as if it were their
    fault. This is the reactionary response to our problems which creates the
    cynicism that leads well-intentioned people to support regressive taxes.

    This is precisely the
    same strategy that is currently being used by the media to blame public workers’
    pensions and benefits for the failure of state and local governments to balance
    their budgets. The attacks on public workers’ benefits are merely distractions
    so that citizens forget the impacts of non-stop wars and the largest theft of
    public funds in the history of the world which we, the tax payers, are paying for.

    This strategy is so
    effective that even the most liberal citizens are falling for it.

    People who are still comfortable
    understand that their economic situation is changing fast. They are getting
    caught up in the downward economic spiral. When they are told that the
    increased cost of their health insurance is due to other people’s unhealthy
    lifestyles, they quickly support a regressive sugar drinks tax. They support
    increasing the health insurance rates for obese people or smokers or just
    denying them health care altogether. The same attitude is being applied to
    public workers who have paid into their retirement plans but are now under
    attack for having a retirement plan at all. Politicians and the media clamor
    for the reduction of their benefits while advocating for them to work longer
    before retirement. Voters who have fewer benefits or none at all are now
    supporting these shortsighted attacks. They don’t understand the causes of
    their own current economic situation. The easy answer for them is to attack
    their neighbor. We need to stop these mean-spirited, divisive, reactionary attacks
    on our friends and neighbors, focus instead on the real problem: work to defeat
    capitalism before it crushes all of us. Progressives should never support
    regressive taxes.