Richmond’s regressive and indiscriminate sugar tax promises a bitter outcome for our most underserved residents and struggling businesses.
The proposed tax is extraordinarily broad, impacting much more than the high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) sweetened sodas suspected of causing much of the nation’s obesity. It taxes any non-alcoholic beverage containing any added caloric sweetener including fructose, sucrose, and fruit juice concentrates. This means many alternatives to soda — juice-sweetened sodas, soy milk, almond milk, fruit juice blends, veggie-drinks, ethnic drinks (aguas frescas, Thai iced tea, tapioca pearl drinks, etc) and even baby formula — are all taxed. The tax is blind to quantity — if even a small amount of sweetener is added the entire beverage is taxed $.01 per ounce.
Many of these alternatives are moderately consumed, healthy grocery items; taxing of staples will become even more pronounced when Richmond businesses, as they’ve forewarned, must distribute the cost across all merchandise in order to remain competitive with stores outside our city. Raising the cost of staples through taxation, in a city with nearly double the national and state poverty rate, places an unacceptable burden on our poor.
This effect on our poorest residents is further compounded because our wealthier residents already shop outside Richmond. Supermarkets generally popular with our lower middle-class and up — Safeway, Raley’s, Lucky’s, Trader Joes, Whole Foods, Berkeley Bowl, etc. – are all located in neighboring cities. This leaves our poor, with limited means and mobility, to pay the tax at Richmond’s corner stores while the wealthier residents can reap any benefits — without the burden — the tax may bring. This tax is hyper-regressive.
Richmond has many vacant storefronts, a shortage of grocers, and leading supermarkets either refuse to locate here or have left town. Passing a tax making it even costlier to do business assures the shunning of Richmond will continue, while avoidance of the tax will remain the privilege of our wealthier, mobile residents.
Few disagree that the consumption of HFCS sodas is unhealthy and must be reduced, particularly here in Richmond. The proposed sugar tax includes a noteworthy albeit non-mandatory measure tying revenue to as-yet unspecified anti-obesity programs. But in a time of punishing, pension-driven deficits in a city struggling with violent crime, it remains to be seen if revenues won’t be diverted to more immediate concerns such as public safety.
In the absence of a state or national soda tax, a local parcel tax dedicated to health initiatives could be one progressive option that avoids impeding business growth and ensures the wealthy pay their fair share. But as proposed, this municipal tax on sugar will be harmful to a city with such socio-economic disparity and focusing a tax on Richmond’s poor can never be the solution.
See this link for examples of taxed, non-soda beverages: http://tinyurl.com/7wuk8xt
Felix Hunziker, Richmond, California
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