City Council moves forward with soda tax

Graph from Contra Costa Health Services

Graph from Contra Costa Health Services

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.

 

24 Comments

  1. Joe

    For Councilmember Booze, “it is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you’re a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”

  2. Tony Suggs

    I used to think just San Francisco and Berkeley were nuts. I see now that Richmond is following suit in social engineering.

    Children are fat because most likely their parents are, they get little or no exercise and the parents do not exercise proper control over what their children do.

    Ok if the tax passes, does anyone really believe that adding more sports fields will get kids that do not use the ones we already have, are going to start using any new ones?

    Instead of adding more non academic classes to the schools, how about going back to actual PE classes where the students did more than just walk a couple laps around the track. Make them run, do push ups, chin ups and sit ups or they do not pass the class.

    Finally, when did obesity become a black or latino disease? It is a disease of laziness, too much video games and not enough good old fashion play.

    You want to tax something, tax the video games consoles and large screen tvs. Those more than anything else has contributed to the “obesity” epidemic.

    Mr Ritterman, what happens to the programs funded by this or the tobacco tax when you achieve your objective and no one buys the products anymore? Where does the money come from if the taxes are not there anymore?

    Has anyone ever thought about that?

  3. Jeff Ritterman

    The best analogy to help one understand the Sugar Sweetened Beverage Tax is the tobacco tax. Both products have serious health consequences. In each, marketing has targeted the poor and communities of color. In each case the behavior (smoking or drinking SSBs) worsens health disparities. In each case the costs are paid largely by the tax payer. In each case the poor have the most to gain by a change in behavior and depending on how the revenue is spent, the poor and communities of color can benefit from the revenue as well. In both cases the opposition has claimed that the tax is regressive and ignored the fact that the illness resulting from the behavior is even more regressive. In each case the opposition claims that the tax is of no benefit when, experts agree that the tobacco tax has been hugely successful and that the SSB Tax will likely eventually be so as well. In each case a handful of transnational corporations benefit from the sale of a product which has absolutely no health or nutritional benefit and causes great harm. In each case the science favors the tax as demand is elastic and decreases with the tax. In each case there is an extensive medical literature in support of the tax. The American Academy of Pediatrics is in favor of a SSB Tax and our effort also has the support of the American Heart Association. We are historically at the infancy of SSB Taxes, akin to where we were with tobacco taxes many years ago. Just like in the case of tobacco, giant corporations will fight to preserve profits despite the enormous harm their products cause. In the case of tobacco, the tax has been hugely successful and it eventually will be with SSB as well. Richmond has a chance to lead the country in this effort.

    • Rogerf

      And don’t we love tangent responses.
      I’ll be amazed when elected folks actually respond to concrete questions; for example:

      How does a TAX remediate lack of education, or parental control, or the culture at home?

      How does a TAX lead people toward better nutrition and healthy exercise habits?

      We have had programs for years. What are the results of the efforts thus far by Kaiser, the county etc. before having recourse to TAXING. How long is this going to take?

      It’s not about the amount as much as the principle of government officials acting as gods.

      Elected folks should do a better job of communicating with their constituents. Please do not cite trends and “stuff” (“Richmond has a chance to lead the country in this effort”). We have a lot of work to do before we lead the country in anything.

      Lead our communities toward promoting safer environments, engaging in their civic duties, maintaining clean streets, and getting rid of drugs.

      Then tell us about obesity.

      Or, let’s continue promoting medical marijuana (which makes people hungry) and then tax them for being obese. Richmond will be very rich one day because of fat, stoned people.

      • Felix Hunziker

        Good job Roger. Jeff’s reply does indeed skirt all the questions. Keep calling it the way you see it.

      • Jeff Ritterman

        OK Roger here goes:

        You say: How does a Tax remediate lack of education…

        My reply:
        It helps educate folks who are now being miseducated by the millions of dollars spent on advertising these unhealthy products. Can you tell me how many teaspoons of sugar the American Heart Association recommends? Can you tell me why obesity leads to diabetes? Can you tell me why poverty leads to obesity? If you can, great. I would guess that many don’t know the answers and the campaign to promote the tax will give us all a chance to make this information public.

        You say: How does a tax lead to better nutrition…

        The data shows that for every 10% increase in cost (like an increase due to a soda tax)demand drops by 8%…So there is a scientific literature which shows how this works. Its not just an idle debate. There is scientific knowledge and it shows that consumption is elastic and decreases with a tax. Leading researchers in this field all agree that a tax has greater benefit in decreasing demand than health education alone.

        In addition if the city council acts wisely, the tax revenue will be spent on programs and projects which prevent and reverse childhood obesity.

        You say: It’s not about the amount as much as the principle of government officials acting as gods.

        No one is acting like a god. Was it acting like god to institute a tobacco tax which has prevented lots of our young folks from smoking and the subsequent horrors of early disease and death?

        You say: Lead our communities toward promoting safer environments, engaging in their civic duties, maintaining clean streets, and getting rid of drugs.
        Then tell us about obesity.

        My response: You build a safe healthy community by attending to many things at once. Why leave obesity prevention for another day? It makes no sense. Every expert in this field is saying that we need to do something NOW and something BOLD. If we wait, almost half of Richmond’s adult population will be obese. Obese people have a much higher risk of chronic illness which will make a Healthy Richmond an impossibility.

        I hope that answers your concerns Roger. I would be happy to debate this publicly if you or anyone would like to do so. I can also share with everyone a large and expanding medical literature on this subject which supports a Sugar Sweetened Beverage Tax.

        Please note that the American Academy of Pediatrics, the professional society that represents Pediatricians supports this tax. The American Heart Association supports this tax. The Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, one of the world’s leading institutions on obesity research and policy supports our SSB Tax. The Public Health Law and Policy Institute in Oakland supports our effort.

  4. Rogerf

    “City leaders could take the soda tax money and spend it on things like sports fields, better sidewalks and school-based healthy eating programs.”

    [On "things LIKE..."?]

  5. Rogerf

    Jeff, thank you for taking time to reply.
    In answer to your comments:

    I would still like to see the results of efforts already underway re: education and the impact those efforts have had, in Richmond, on the folks who are obese and/or have unhealthy habits before initiating any new educational programs that a TAX will pay for.
    Further, if the main rationale is that, “Leading researchers in this field all agree that a tax has greater benefit in decreasing demand than health education alone,” I, for one, wonder how long it will take to effect any impact. It took decades for the tobacco industry to impact adults; how long do you believe it will take to change the habits of today’s young children, if not those have been “addicted” for years already? And … a one cent tax? In addition, does any of the “scientific literature which shows how this works” apply to demographics like Richmond’s? If so, please direct me to it.

    My comment about “acting like gods” is the approach undertaken, similar to many governments and public institutions (e.g. school districts, health insurance and others), to tax (or increase prices on) all for the benefit of some who refuse to make an effort to better their life on their own. Who makes those decisions for me? I help in any way I can, but disagree with a TAX approach.

    Last and definitely not least, I understand the “multi-level” approach, but is this not why we are sooooooo slow in achieving any results? Is there not research out there that shows that once people live in safe, clean environments and communities, they begin to look toward, for lack of better reference, the higher echelon on the hierarchy of needs?

    Junk food, malnutrition and unhealthy habits are result more from stress, despair, poverty and depression than a lack of education (and I am not saying that lack of education is not important). Let’s see one person who wouldn’t want to make their life better (physically) once s/he feels better mentally and emotionally.

    Well, there’s my two cents.
    We seem to be looking at the issues from different perspectives.

    Regardless, I would love to see the “plan” that includes the programs the city will start. Or did we go for the tax before drafting a plan? Hopefully not.

    Best and good luck!

    • Rogerf

      Sorry for the typos.

    • Jeff Ritterman

      Dear Roger,
      Thanks for the dialogue. Your point about education is well taken and needs to be a part of any solution, but the experts tell us that a tax added to education is much much much more effective in changing behavior than education alone.
      The answer to how long it takes to achieve an impact depends on our community and our degree of alignment and how high the tax. We could change behavior immediately by making the tax very high, but this would not give the community as much of a chance to adjust, so to me it seems better to take an incremental approach and evaluate every year or two how we are doing. If the results are good, stay the course. If not, make adjustments whether they be increasing the tax, intensifying the education, expanding the projects and programs which seem to be working, fixing or eliminating those that are not.
      Its not really fair to place all of the responsibility on individuals as by nature our appetites are elastic and we have a taste for sweets. Both made a lot of sense when we had both feast and famine but now we know only feasting and our normal physiology is being used against us, especially against our children by a barrage of advertisements. The poor and people of color suffer the most. I don’t believe that there is any support in the literature for your suggestion that obesity prevention and reversal should be put on the back burner until other social ills are resolved. To me it makes much more sense to work toward a Healthier Richmond on many levels at once. We will not abandon our work on Public Safety or decrease it just because we are simultaneously working at obesity prevention.
      Thanks for the dialogue. In partnership, Jeff

      • Rogerf

        Jeff,

        Let’s agree that we come from very different points of view. If individuals are so prone to being brainwashed by corporate marketing, then this is where the education $$$ should be spent so they (the individuals) take responsibility for the consequences of their (re)actions.

        As for the rest, I come from one angle really: in my book (and hopefully others’), government officials are elected for very specific purposes — ensure that every citizen receives basic services (clean and safe environments, infrastructure, basic health services and, to a certain extent, basic education). I’ll add another period here.

        The rest is the responsibility of individuals.

        So, you can see that I cannot possibly agree with the rationale for ANY tax other than for the above purposes, especially hen the plan on how to spend the money is vague.

        Government officials and officials wannabes are great at spending a lot of money when election time comes: my mailbox is full of glossy, colorful, and expensive fliers and brochures; my phone doesn’t stop ringing with robocalls from candidates.

        When it’s decision time for this or that issue, I have to go fish on web sites, or in a few poorly publicized meetings, to receive either limited or vague information, or find the relevant information on my own.

        Why wasn’t this tax (and other great ideas) promoted the same way candidates promote themselves? That’s what I vote for.

      • Rogerf

        Addendum:
        Regardless, I would love to see the “plan” that includes the programs the city will start. Or did we go for the tax before drafting a plan? Hopefully not.

        • Jeff Ritterman

          Hi Roger,
          I believe that developing “the plan” should be a community wide endeavor. I have some ideas and others have shared ideas with me which include:
          adequate sports fields for our youth;
          support for youth sports of many types (this could include swimming lessons at The Plunge for our school kids;
          creation and maintenance of community, and school gardens with nutrition instruction and cooking instruction;
          creation and maintenance of safe routes to school which encourage walking and biking to school.
          I don’t see this as an exhaustive list but it gives you some idea on the kinds of programs and projects we could fund. Have anything to add to the list?
          Best wishes,
          Jeff

          • rogerf

            Jeff, or Santa Claus,

            Sure. I have a lot of ideas. Can I raise a tax, get some money and give you the plan later?

            Thanks.

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