News Report, Malcolm Marshall
RICHMOND, Calif. – Nai Saechao, a first time voter, says she hasn’t made up her mind about Richmond’s so-called soda tax, which is set to appear on this November’s ballot. While she admits obesity is a problem, like other residents here she’s not convinced taxing soda is the solution.
“There’s a lot of things that contribute to the obesity problem,” Nai says. “If people learn to moderate their intake, it will help.”
Measure N calls for a penny-per-ounce tax on all sugar-sweetened drinks sold in the city. First proposed in May, the idea has split the community, with small business owners and community health advocates among those squaring off over the measure’s potential health and financial impacts.
The Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes, a local group backed by the American Beverage Association (ABA), has put itself behind advertising efforts, spending more than $350,000 hoping to convince voters like Nai to come out against the proposal.
“If people really want all that soda,” says the 18-year-old, “they’re going to buy it regardless. I don’t want the local businesses to be hurt from it.”
According to a report in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Big Soda” companies are expected to spend upwards of $1 million in the coming weeks to sour residents on the idea of the tax. The ABA has described it as “unfair to the community” and “misguided.”
If it passes, Measure N would be the first such tax in the country and an unprecedented step toward greater government involvement in the ongoing effort to combat obesity. In September, New York passed a controversial ban on sugary drinks over 16 ounces, while the Southern California city of El Monte has a similar initiative on its ballot.
Richmond has a childhood obesity rate of 51% and finds itself front and center of the national debate about how far government should go in discouraging the consumption of soda and other sugar-sweetened drinks. Proponents of the tax have gone so far as to equate soda to cigarettes, in terms of the danger it poses to public health.
“No on Measure N” billboards and advertisements, meanwhile, have popped up all over town, most noticeably along the main commercial strip of 23rd Ave.
19-year-old Manuel Floriana isn’t registered and so does not plan to vote. But he’s all for the tax, “because it will not only help kids in the community, but help adults [choose] healthy alternatives. [Plus] I heard [the revenue] is going toward parks.”
Estimates put the potential funds generated by Measure N at roughly $3 million annually. A separate ballot measure, Measure O, would lead to the creation of a non-binding advisory committee tasked with steering the funds generated by Measure N toward health education and other efforts to prevent obesity and diabetes, including the construction of athletic fields across the city.
Karina Carmona of Taqueria La Estrella on 23rd Avenue doesn’t agree with the tax, but says if its something business has to comply with, then they will do it. “The reasons they give, for children and more parks, we think it’s more about creating the money. If it goes to what they say, then I will feel better about it,” says Carmona.
“Everything for the consumer is going up, but wages are not going up. (The cost of) produce is going up, and people are still losing their jobs and homes,” she added.
Councilman Jeff Ritterman, who first introduced Measure N, says the hope is that just as cigarette sales have become less and less profitable in Richmond’s corner stores, healthier beverage options will replace sugar sweetened beverages over time. “We would like to transform our economy,” says Ritterman. “We want to maximize the healthy things our economy produces and have more profits go the to healthier option.”
In a report prepared for the Richmond City Council by the Contra Costa County Public Health department, data from 2010 shows that more than 50 percent of children in Richmond are overweight or obese. The report also defines a sugar-sweetened beverage (SSB) as a non-alcoholic beverage, carbonated or non-carbonated, that contains added caloric sweeteners. Included in this definition are traditional sodas (such as Coca-Cola, Sprite), sports drinks (like Gatorade) and “energy drinks.”
The report also identified SSBs as the “largest single source of excess, non-nutritional calories in the American diet,” and concluded that there exists “a strong correlation between obesity and consumption of SSBs.”
Yet even the sobering realty behind these numbers may not be enough to convince some voters that a tax on sugar sweetened beverages is the way to go.
Local business owners say they worry consumers will choose to go to surrounding cities to shop, causing much needed money to leave Richmond. If Measure N passes, a 16-ounce bottle of soda that now costs $0.99 would rise to $1.15.
Zee Handush owns a smoke shop inside Pacific East Mall, in the Richmond Annex neighborhood, and has been in the tobacco business for over 20 years. For him the soda tax isn’t just a business issue.
“I [began] selling cigarettes for 70 cents a pack and now I’m selling them for $7 a pack. I’m still in business,” explains Handush. “I’m gonna probably spend an extra $5,000 a year so as a business owner I will be affected. [But] as responsible business owners we should encourage business to sell healthier options.”
Tania Pulido, 23, is a Brower Award winner for her local food activism and a junior at UC Berkeley. She will also be voting for the first time this November.
“I boycotted the last election (in 2010),” she says, “(because) I was upset that Obama was planning to bail out the banks.” But this year is different. “I realize that I have to find a middle ground, plus I really don’t want Romney to win,” she said. “Also, I’m voting because if I want to motivate my peers and friends to vote, then I have to do it too.”
As for Measure N, Pulido is planning to vote yes. She says that if by voting yes on Measure N she can support more soccer fields and education around obesity in the community, she’s all for it.
“Parents aren’t taking the steps necessary to keep their children from being obese. The (soccer) fields and education can help break the cycle of obesity in our families,” she explains. “Clearly there is a lack of education around the issue. People know (soda) is unhealthy but they continue to drink it.”
Additional reporting by William Haynes