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Apr 2 / Josh

Towards a National Soda Tax

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News flash—the once much debated penny-per-ounce Berkeley, California soda tax has been in effect now for almost four months.

California soda tax; is that starting to ring a bell? What about all those millions of campaign dollars that were poured into (pun intended) fighting this city of less than 117,000 residents’ ballot initiative back in the November 2014 elections? Let us also recall San Francisco’s similar attempt in 2014, in addition to Richmond and El Monte’s failed endeavors back in 2012.

One can easily argue that these initiatives were far over-publicized to the national audience in the first place. In the heat of both the 2012 and 2014 partisan driven elections, citizens nationwide were perhaps more eager to throw their support for, or anguish against, a cause of less direct nation-wide impact, for want of distraction from the political turmoil of the national elections.

I argue that for whatever reason these causes gained national importance in the first place, their longer-term outcomes deserve just as much, if not more, of our collective national attention. Within just the first month of implementation, two Berkeley branches of the chain store Dollar Tree have removed all sodas from their shelves, as the stores are no longer able to offer the sodas at or below the cost of $1 with the added price tag of the soda tax. The stores have replaced the sodas with bottled water.

So why has this news only made local importance? First off, many argue that Berkeley, with a predominantly white, affluent, and liberally leaning population, is not representative enough of the country at large—or even most major US cities—for us to be able to extrapolate these efforts to fit other cities and states. I reject this reason, however, based on the extreme lengths that the soda industry and its American Beverage Association (ABA) representation went through to stop the initiative from passing in the first place. If Berkeley has no impact on populations outside of Berkeley, why fight so hard to squash their efforts?

A better excuse, in my opinion, would be the industry’s obvious attempts to shift attention away from their negative publicity and declining sales, toward their less than adequate charitable donations for anti-obesity programs. Just last month—about the same time that Dollar Tree pulled sodas from the shelves in Berkeley—the ABA joined the US Conference of Mayors to grant six cities across the country almost half a million dollars towards anti-obesity programs. I would echo executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), Michael Jacobson’s, sentiments in noting that this measly sum is less than the cost of just one soda commercial during the Super Bowl.

But we cannot forget about the little guy in the sea of positive publicity stunts, lest we miss that first teetering domino in the long chain of cities poised to accept tighter regulation in the name of their citizens’ public health. Whether you revere him as a public health revolutionary or curse him as a nanny state dictator, Mayor Bloomberg came just shy of equally groundbreaking soda regulation. And no one can argue that change in New York City cannot be representative of at least other major cities throughout the US. The state of Vermont has already begun to float the idea of a two-cent per ounce soda tax, and that is statewide.

And finally, we should not forget the steps we have taken toward the final end goal—national regulation of soda across the board.  Just last July, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), a long time fighter in the name of good food regulation, introduced the Sugar-Sweetened Beverages Tax (SWEET) Act to create a nationwide penny per teaspoon tax on caloric sweetener in beverages.  DeLauro’s proposal—though an unrealistic attempt even to the biggest idealists in the public health world—in tandem with Bloomberg, the state of Vermont, and the soda industry’s wild attempts to throw money at a problem to make it disappear, offers the symbolic momentum needed to keep soda regulation and taxation on the public radar long enough to get those next few dominos down after the smaller scale successes in Berkeley.  So here is to the little guy; let us not forget our first steps toward significant, across the board change.

Thanks to Eden Kanowitz for writing! Eden is currently pursuing a Master’s in Food Studies at New York University, concentrating in food policy and food advocacy. She is an avid supporter of locally sourced and community supported agriculture, and lover of all new eatery explorations in her neighborhood in Brooklyn.

One Comment

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  1. ChrisCfromUDAR / Apr 2 2015

    Yeah, Eden!!!


    Josh’s boy

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