Soda Makers Using Ballot Measures to Fight Soda Taxes

Campaigns supporting ballot measures in Washington and Oregon that would prevent municipalities from taxing food sales are being bankrolled by beverage companies trying to block attempts to tax sugary drinks, a new report suggests.

Soda taxes are seen as a way to reduce rates of obesity and other health problems linked to high sugar consumption, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, The New York Times reported.

Nearly 40 countries have them, as do seven cities in the United States, including Philadelphia, San Francisco and Boulder, Col. And other U.S. towns and cities are considering such taxes.

In response, soda makers like Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo are pushing ballot measures and statewide legislation that would permanently prevent municipalities from taxing a broad range of goods and services. But instead of talking about taxes on soda, the campaigns claim to be fighting taxes on groceries, The Times reported.

Neither Washington nor Oregon has a plan to tax groceries.

"No one is even talking about taxing food," Jim Krieger, a professor of medicine and health services at the University of Washington, told The Times. "This is simply the soda industry trying to protect its profits at the expense of public health and local democracy."

In Washington, the soda industry has spent $20 million to promote the ballot measure opposing such taxes, according to state finance filings. Opponents of the ballot measure have raised $100,000.

Since last year, legislatures in Michigan, Arizona and California have passed laws that forbid local governments from imposing such taxes in the future. Experts say the outcomes in Oregon and Washington could determine the future of the soda tax movement in the United States.

"It's a pivotal moment," Mark Pertschuk, director of the advocacy group Grassroots Change, told The Times. "It's hard to overstate the chilling effect of having soda taxes barred from the whole West Coast, where so many progressive policies are born."

"These pre-emptive measures undermine democracy and completely take away a local government's ability to do what's best for their communities," Jennifer Pomeranz, a professor of public health at New York University, told The Times. "It's a true corporate takeover of America."

But such ballot measures are by their very nature democratic, according to William Dermody, a spokesman for the American Beverage Association, the industry group backing the measures.

"We believe there is a better way to help people reduce the amount of sugar consumed from beverages and bring about lasting change, including working alongside the public health community and offering more low- and no-sugar options," he told The Times.

Studies have found that soda taxes have a significant impact. For example, they reduced soda consumption by 21 percent in Berkeley, Calif. and by 40 percent in Philadelphia.

"We know that even modest soda taxes work, Laura MacCleery, policy director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told The Times. "Because they work, soda companies fight the taxes tooth and nail."

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