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As Richmond ponders soda tax, United Nations report urges similar taxes

on March 26, 2012

A recent report by the United Nations calls for a worldwide tax on soft drinks—exactly like the one Richmond will be voting on this November.

The implementation and amount of the tax, and whether it should be levied on consumers or the industry is left to the state. However, the report does recommend that the revenue be used to subsidize healthier products and health education. The UN also advises other measures such as closer regulation of the food industry and stimulating local production.

The report argues that problems caused by an unhealthy diet are already costing people money. “Taxpayers pay for misguided subsidies that encourage the agrifood industry to sell heavily processed foods at the expense of making fruits and vegetables available at lower prices; they pay for the marketing efforts of the same industry”, states the report. It adds that the problem is more extensive, as people also “pay for health-care systems for which non-communicable diseases today represent an unsustainable burden.”

Non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes, which often can be linked directly to obesity, are rapidly becoming the leading cause of death in large parts of the world. Unless action is taken, children in the United States may well have a lower life expectancy than their parents. Estimates by the Contra Costa Health Services project that 42 percent of future adults in Richmond will be obese.

The proposed tax in Richmond would add a penny to every ounce of soda, raising the price of a two-liter bottle by about 68 cents. Several councilmembers and health officials, who see soda as the leading cause of the obesity epidemic, support the measure. According to them, the revenue generated will be spent on public health.

The UN report produces little in the way of new science, but advocates of the Richmond soda tax still feel it supports their position. “The great thing is that it places food and nutrition in the context of human rights,” said Councilman Jeff Reitterman. “Everyone is entitled to a healthy diet, and we are a long way from that.”

But the effectiveness of such a tax is much disputed. A 2009 study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine concludes that a tax would not me much of a deterrent—a 50 percent tax would only lower consumption by 3 percent, the study’s authors concluded. However, a 2010 study by the Archive of Internal Medicine found that an 18 percent tax on soft drinks and pizza will result in an average weight loss of 5 pounds per year per person.

A real life experiment is currently underway. In October 2010, Denmark adopted a “fat-tax” on all products containing saturated fats. In dollars, the tax adds about 40 percent to the price of a burger, and a nickel to a liter of soda. Unfortunately the Danish Ministry of health says it is too early for definitive conclusions. Other countries, including the United Kingdom, are considering similar legislation.

In Richmond the debate continues. To Councilman Corky Boozé, the report is of little consequence. “I call it a poor people’s obesity tax,” he said. According to Boozé the tax will hurt local business that sells soda, as consumers will go elsewhere, and have little effect because other unhealthy products are still available. He also says the comparison with Denmark is misplaced. “We have more rights in California than they have in Denmark. Americans won’t stand for such measures,” he said.

Nevertheless, he agrees obesity is a problem. But the solution should be found elsewhere, he said. “If we were talking about cigarettes, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation,” he said. “But if you want to stop obesity, you have to put physical education back in schools. You have to educate people mentally. How else are you going to keep them from eating a steak dinner?

Ritterman agrees that just educating the public is not sufficient. “You need a carrot and a stick. The carrot is that you’ll live longer and feel healthier, the stick is the tax, which worked very well for cigarettes,” he said.

He also denies that the tax is targeted at poor people. “It’s a tax on soda. It’s true that the tax is regressive, but it is also true that the problem is regressive,” he said. “Poor people are already paying—with their health.



  1. Felix Hunziker on March 26, 2012 at 2:45 pm

    Jeff Ritterman as usual attempts to deflect the real questions with lectures about how reducing sugar intake is necessary. We already know that. Invoking human rights is a red herring since the tax does nothing to bring healthier food sources to underserved neighborhoods. We already have the healthy alternative to sodas – it’s called tap water.

    Like all sales taxes this is a regressive tax but it’s *further* concentrated on the poor because everyone who has the income and is mobile already shops outside Richmond. This tax will extract $2M – $6M per year from our poorest neighborhoods while the rest of Richmond is largely unaffected. It really is the “Tax On Richmond’s Poor”.

    This economic disparity is also why the recommendations in the UN report and other agencies don’t really matter as they’re intended for national or state-wide efforts. It’s also worth mentioning that soda taxes are just one item in their long list of recommendations.

    Some things to consider…
    1) the poor will bear the largest burden of this tax.
    2) even a 2% reduction in obesity rates is overly optimistic.
    3) soda taxes even as high as 20% are ineffective at curbing sugar sweetened beverage (SSB) consumption or BMI but are great cash cows for governments.
    4) the revenue from the Richmond tax goes into the general fund pot where it’s been recommended for 20+ sports fields and school gardens but apparently nothing for education and incentives. Sports fields are expensive, Jeff Ritterman, and since you flooded the Council chambers with eager young soccer players you’re going to have to deliver.
    5) the present sunset clause (tax expires when less than 10% of kids are overweight) completely ignores the relatively minor role SSBs play in the overall causes of obesity. Without a huge impact on the other causes of obesity this tax will never go away.

    As a tax paying Richmond resident I’d like to know why we didn’t try an education program funded by grants? Don’t we have a 10 year commitment from the California Endowment at our disposal that, coupled with some seed money, could turn into something big? And why haven’t we attempted to build a partnership with large businesses in the area like Chevron, Kaiser, Target, etc.? We shouldn’t consider even an equitable tax until those options have been thoroughly explored.

    Jeff, we all agree that too much soda consumption needs to be reduced but taxing our poor is not the solution. Please find a solution that is equitable for everyone, such as pushing our State Legislature for a supply-side tax that is invisible to consumers and that everyone pays equally.

    One last point that I need some help on because I’ve heard different things: will the SSB tax apply to fountain-served drinks (as opposed to packaged containers)? Thanks.

    • Felix Hunziker on March 28, 2012 at 1:36 pm

      Jeff Ritterman got back to me on the fountain-served sodas question: these will NOT be taxed.

  2. Tony Suggs on March 26, 2012 at 2:51 pm

    I am totally amazed at this whole idea that food is a “human right.” If that is the case where is the U.N. in helping feed the millions of starving or malnurished people in Africa, North Korea or Haiti?

    What other things are we going to declare are a human rights?

    How about clothes, a gym membership, a car so I can travel freely or maybe a gun?

    I need a gun to make sure that I can protect myself if someone wants to rob me or kill me.

    Isn’t it a human right to live?

    So, everyone is ENTITLED to a healthy diet!

    How about everyone is entitled to use the brains they were born with to make their own decisions.

    When the tax don’t work, will the government that knows what is best for us simpletons, pass more laws that will ban the foods that they think are not right for us?

    Of course not, they will just raise the tax higher so that they will have more money to spend on their pet projects.

    But all of this wont affect me, because I am not poor so I don’t have worry about being obese. According to the doctor, this is a problem for the poor.

  3. Tom Butt on March 27, 2012 at 9:38 pm

    Soda tax?

  4. andrew Gonzales on March 31, 2012 at 9:58 am

    This is a Parenting Issue that needs to be handled by Parents and Education not Taxes.

    Why would the Citizens of Richmond hand over tax money to this City Council?

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