In a country where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate roughly 90 million people are considered obese, some Richmond residents say that taxing soft drinks is an effective way to reverse the trend.
On May 15, city council leaders In Richmond voted 5-2 to put a special tax on sodas on the November 6 ballot. The soda tax would add a one-cent per ounce surcharge to soda and other sugary fruit drinks with less than ten percent juice. Under the ordinance, grocery stores, markets, and other vendors that sell beverages would pay the business license fee and monitor ounces sold per year.
Richmond city councilman Jeff Ritterman is now calling for supporters of the tax to help raise $100,000 for his Fit For Life campaign. Headed by Ritterman, the Fit For Life campaign seeks to get Richmond residents to volunteer to respond to the epidemic of childhood obesity.
Ritterman has appealed to residents to facilitate fund raising events and throw house parties in the community to raise awareness about the soda tax issue and donating to the campaign. “We can win this, but I need to raise $100,000 for mailings, printing, robo-calls, and lawn signs,” said Ritterman in an email sent out to Richmond residents last week. “We don’t need the money all at once, but we need $15,000 right away for a mailing and for door hangers. We have already started precinct walking.”
Jeff Ritterman is a retired chief of cardiology at the Kaiser Permanente Richmond Medical Center and has seen the impact of high sugar consumption on increasing numbers of obese children during his tenure.
“These sugar sweetened beverages have no nutritional value,” said Ritterman. ““They have tremendous amount of sugar in the form of fructose and when they are ingested, that huge amount of fructose is sent to the liver and the liver can’t handle it. The liver converts it to fat and it ultimately converts it to fatty cholesterol particles which make the heart’s arteries clog up resulting in heart attacks. The fat also packs
the liver resulting in insulin resistance. The liver becomes “deaf” to the hormone insulin. The pancreas responds by making higher and higher levels of insulin. Eventually the pancreas poops out and diabetes is the result.””
During the city council meeting on May 15 when Richmond leaders voted to put the proposal on sodas on the November ballot, tensions between advocates and opponents of the tax rose as people voiced their concerns. Many supporters spoke about how the tax would be a great incentive to help residents, particularly children, limit their consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages. Critics of the tax argued that the tax would be ineffective and questioned whether the money generated from the tax would actually go towards athletic programs and not be used for other expenses.
Council members Corky Booze and Nat Bates, opponents of the soda tax, argue that it will have little effect on consumption and will primarily target African American and Latino communities.
“This is a tax on the poor and it will hurt local business owners that have to calculate the additional costs on the sugar sweetened beverages,” said Booze at the meeting. “This isn’t going to stop people from drinking soda, they will just go outside of Richmond to buy these products.”
Those who are interested in donating money or volunteering can visit the Fit For Life campaign website. The website lists strategies and ideas for programs in Richmond to combat obesity including eliminating the sale of sweetened beverages in vending machines on city owned property.
Supporters of the soda tax are also listed including Richmond Mayor Garyle McLaughlin, City Councilmember Jovanka Beckles, and Recreation and Parks Commissioner Eduardo Martinez.
The fight to combat rising obesity rates has sparked debates and proposals among local government leaders across the country as well. On Wednesday in New York City, the Bloomberg administration announced a proposed ban on the sale of sodas larger than 16 fluid ounces and other sweetened beverages at restaurants, movie theaters, and street carts, which could take effect as soon as next March.
Ritterman believes he can gain the majority of residents’ support despite the opposition. “Some people feel it unfairly taxes the poor, and I remind those people that you may call the tax regressive, but these diseases are regressive,” said Ritterman. “The beverage industry particularly targets our poor communities where they are advertising.”