The City Council voted 5-2 last Tuesday to support placing a soda tax on the ballot next November – a measure that proposes a 1-cent charge for every ounce of sugary beverages sold in Richmond. In a second measure, the city proposes to use the revenues from this tax to fight childhood obesity in Richmond.
If the City Council approves the completed drafts of the two ballot measures before the November elections, Richmond could be the first city in the nation to implement a soda tax that’s paired with a public health initiative to fight childhood obesity.
Wendel Brunner, the director of Contra Costa Public Health, said more than 58 percent of Richmond’s residents are obese or overweight, and that the county spends more than $400 million a year in obesity related health care costs.
Soda, public health officials say, is the major culprit in the obesity epidemic, with about 60 percent of Richmond’s teens drinking one or more sweetened sugary beverages a day.
“Our Richmond youth are consuming more than 150,000 calories of sweetened sugar drinks a year,” Brunner said. “That’s like 275 extra Big Macs a year.”
What’s dangerous, Brunner added, is that downing a Big Gulp’s 700 calories won’t fill you up.
“Your body doesn’t know it just consumed a half pound of sugar,” Brunner said. “You don’t have the same type of satiation and so you may say, ‘OK, let’s have another pack of French fries.’ It’s insidious.”
City leaders could take the soda tax money and spend it on things like sports fields, better sidewalks and school-based healthy eating programs.
Brunner said that even though a tax wouldn’t eliminate soda consumption, at the very least, it would curb demand. He noted that Richmond schools are crowded by places to buy cheap sugary drinks.
“Every individual has the responsibility to make good choices for themselves and their children and their families,” Brunner said. “But we need an environment that supports people in making good choices — that makes the healthy choice an easy choice.”
The measure has drawn vocal opposition, though, both inside and outside the council. Opponents of the measure call it a limit on choice, a governmental overreach that may not be targeting the true cause of obesity and doesn’t even guarantee the extra revenue will be spent on public health.
Councilmember Corky Booze, who voted against placing the tax on the ballot, said he didn’t think that obesity was a problem for Richmond, and that he has many obese friends who are perfectly healthy.
“I am incensed that you have a tax on obesity,” Booze said. “As a former schoolteacher we did not call our kids fat, obese.”
Booze said taxing soda was just a way to marginalize people of color.
“This is an elitist tax on poor people,” Booze said.
Booze and Councilmember Nat Bates also argued that the tax would not stop residents from drinking soda — they’ll just go to the next town to avoid the tax, hurting local business, Bates said.
But Councilmember Jovanka Beckles called the opposition “cynical.” She said it bothered her that Bates and Booze appeared not to understand the seriousness of Richmond’s obesity epidemic.
“That means it is out of control, particularly as it relates to our children,” Beckles said. “That is a big deal.”
Beckles said that as person of color, she felt especially invested in fighting obesity.
“This epidemic affects us — Blacks and Latinos — the most,” Beckles said. “I would think that the African Americans on this council would be the biggest champions of this item — rather than opposing it with simple questions.”
Councilmember Jeff Ritterman agreed. He said that not doing anything about obesity issues would eventually lead people off a cliff.
“If we stay where we are and keep doing what we are doing, we are doomed,” he said.
Ritterman said that big changes need to happen to make a sustainable society, and taxing soda should be just the beginning.
“Over the course of this debate I had people writing me and saying, ‘What’s next? Tax red meat?’” Ritterman said. “Yeah. Lets get serious. We can’t keep running industrial agriculture like we are now.”
Over the next months the city will work to finalize reports and research for the sweetened sugary beverage tax and obesity prevention measure. Neighboring San Pablo is looking to implement a similar measure in 2014.