Two cities—with heavy residents—weigh taxing soda to fight obesity

City councilman says 'Help us beat Big Soda'

Voters in two California cities that are grappling with local obesity crises this November will decide whether to pass penny-per-ounce taxes on sugary beverages.

The two cities—the Bay Area's Richmond and Los Angeles suburb El Monte—boast California's highest proportions of obese and overweight children, with rates above 50%.

Studies link soda consumption with weight gain

The proposed taxes have sparked controversy, but supporters point to mounting evidence that consuming sugary beverages is unhealthy. Consuming the beverages is the most consistent dietary factor associated with weight gain, according to a Tufts University review of studies published over a 17-year period. Even diet sodas lead to expanding waistlines, according to University of Texas study.

CDC Director Thomas Frieden has argued that a small tax on sugary beverages could be "the single most effective measure to reverse the obesity epidemic." Jeff Ritterman, the Richmond city council member who first proposed the tax, says he is relying on Frieden's advice to help slim down his overweight community.

"Cigarette taxes, and penalties for drunk driving and not buckling up moved us to behave in healthier ways," Ritterman says. "That's what we plan to do in Richmond with the sugar-sweetened beverage tax… Help us beat Big Soda."

Soda industry responds

The American Beverage Association (ABA)—which represents Coca-Cola Inc. and PepsiCo Inc., among others—has already spent $153,628 in Richmond on a Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes and say they plan to spend $200,000 more before November.

The Coalition's billboards say the taxes would hurt local businesses and poorer residents by unfairly targeting one product. Their literature challenges the link between obesity and sugary beverages by comparing rising obesity rates with declining consumption rates of full-calorie soda.

In El Monte, ABA has formed the El Monte Citizens Against Beverages Taxes and supports a lawsuit that challenges the soda tax ballot language as "clearly biased, misleading and false."

"We're going to spend what it takes to make sure voters understand who is going to pay the price for this tax," coalition spokesman Chuck Finnie says (Baertlein/Geller, Reuters, 9/5; Ritterman, Richmond Confidential, 6/26; Frieden/Brownell, NEJM, 4/30/09).

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