California lawmakers are considering a measure that would tax sugary drinks a penny per fluid ounce. The proposal is intended to cap soda consumption in order to reduce obesity rates. Health Care Reporter Pauline Bartolone in Sacramento has found a range of opinions on the soda tax.
It’s a hot afternoon in Sacramento’s Oak Park neighborhood. Teenagers are out of school for the day. Some have beverages in their hands. Kirk Allen is sixteen years old:
"What are you drinkin’?" "Tiki punch, Shasta."
"How much was it, do you remember?" "50 cents or two for a dollar."
He is exactly the kind of person proponents of the state tax have in mind. He’s young, and consumes two liters of sugary beverages a day. Advocates say taxing sweet teas, sodas, and energy drinks would raise money to fight obesity in young people, and make consumers think twice before buying. That’s an idea Allen, who’s not obese, has mixed feelings on.
I think it’s smart in a way to prevent some people from buying it, but I know people are still going to buy it if they want it.
His classmates have their own doubts:
"They’re already taxing us – one - on CRV already for just buying any liquid."
"And we already have taxes on beer, and like, cigarettes, so I think we should just leave soda alone."
"I mean it’s not that bad just because childhood obesity is not a good thing. So… I mean what’s a couple of extra cents on a sugary drink, you know?"
Just a few miles away, state lawmakers are having their own debates about the benefits and fairness of taxing sweet drinks.
Dr. Harold Goldstein from the California Center for Public Health Advocacy is about to testify at the state Capitol to urge lawmakers’ support.
"It turns out that sugary drinks are the single leading contributor to the obesity epidemic. One 20 ounce soda has 16 teaspoons of sugar," says Goldstein.
Goldstein estimates that 1.7 billion dollars would be raised from the penny-per-once tax.
“Forty percent of kids in California are overweight, and this, and the beverage tax will raise the money we need for healthier school meals and P.E. teachers, parks and recs programs in communities, community and school education, nutrition education,” says Goldstein.
The bill has cleared two committees, but some lawmakers are still unconvinced. They say, if we tax sugary drinks, why not tax all products that contain sugar? Others raise concerns about any tax that would single out one industry. Republican State Senator Steve Night says a main cause of childhood obesity is that kids aren’t active outside anymore.
“Government has got to understand that people have choices. When I ate that cheeseburger two nights ago, that probably wasn’t the best thing for me to eat. But I ate it and I had the choice to do it. We also had that choice with our children. So I think the more and more we do this, the more and more we’re affecting jobs, and the choices that we have here in America," says Night.
But if you ask a public health expert about the benefits of taxing soda, the answer is clear.
“Taxation is one of the most effective and easy policies to prevent the obesity epidemic,” says Dr. Laura Schmidt, with the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine. She says there’s an irrefutable law in health policy. If you make something less available, you reduce demand.
"You can make it more expensive to purchase a product, you can make it harder to get, by simply regulating it so that it isn’t available in as many vending machines. Or as many corner stores you can even go down to product placement. You can put it on the top shelf or in the back of the store instead of in the front of the store," says Schmidt.
Schmidt says a soda tax would be one way to reduce consumption of an unhealthy product, while preserving consumer choice.
"It doesn’t mean don’t ever have it. It means make it a little less abundance in the environment, or a little more costly and a little harder to get, and you will see a reduction of the problems associated with consuming that substance," says Schmidt.
But Schmidt doesn’t see California’s soda tax proposal as leading to a significant reduction in soda consumption rates. She says one-cent per fluid ounce is a very modest tax. Schmidt says to drive consumption rates down, the price of soda should be doubled.