Soda taxes won out in this week's elections. The electoral success in Philadelphia and Berkeley, CA opened the path for new initiatives.
Berkeley got some neighbors on board as San Francisco (62%), Oakland (61%), and Albany (71%). Boulder, CO had a 54% majority for a 2¢/ounce soda tax. Each of the Bay Area cities was for a 1¢/ounce sales tax.
Cook County needed a tiebreaker from County Board President Toni Preckwinkle to pass 9-8 a 1¢/ounce sales tax.
The scenario in Chicago will be more dramatic since its citizens already pay a 3% retail sales tax on top of regular sales taxes.
The Cook County soda tax is much broader in effect. Those drinking soda with artificial sweeteners will have to pass the tax. So will drinkers of fruit, sports, and energy drinks. Lemonade? Tax. 100% fruit juice? No tax.
The new taxes in the Bay Area and Boulder go to distributors. Those taxes could be pushed to grocers and later to consumers. The Cook County tax is direct to consumers.
Michael Bloomberg loves to go after soft drinks. The former New York City mayor donated more than $18 million for the San Francisco and Oakland initiatives. Bloomberg spent $1 million toward the Cook County soda tax initiative.
The proposed New York City soda ban while Bloomberg was in office was full of huge holes. Clearly, Bloomberg has learned from that mistake.
How much money would it take to get the U.S. government to stop subsidizing high-fructose corn syrup. If Bloomberg really cares about the price of soft drinks, he could have spent his more than $19 billion to make the subsidies go away. If the true costs of soda were on the shelf, that would be more effective than any soda tax.
Bloomberg is one of the few people who has the power and money to fight the subsidies. They say rich people get to be rich by not spending much money. For way less than $19 billion, we could have reduced soda consumption without the expense of collecting soda taxes on the local level.
There is a significant exemption to these taxes. If you buy soda with SNAP benefits, you don't pay the extra tax. The taxes are regressive toward the poor as is. Rich people aren't going to care about paying these taxes.
But if the idea of the taxes is to reduce soda consumption, they miss a large group with the tax. Given that federal subsidies are the primary reason soda is cheap in the first place, those who are poorer have been more likely to buy the soda and might be reluctant to give up that habit, even with the tax.
I live in Chicago and Cook County. I don't have a car to drive long distances to avoid paying the tax. I don't buy much soda: mostly Mexican Coca-Cola and an occasional other soft drink. I don't buy fruit beverages other than an very occasional lemonade.
I do know I will stock up on a few extra bottles in late June before the new county tax starts. That soda bottle will have 3 different taxes, none of which will go directly to helping people get healthier.
The "sin taxes" on cigarettes and alcohol were deemed acceptable because they weren't necessary. People still buy plenty of cigarettes and alcohol even with high taxes.
Yes, soda isn't necessary but it is classified as a food. After all, you can buy soda with SNAP but not cigarettes and alcohol. Is food a "sin" even if it has no redeeming value.
On principle, food is not a sin. Having consumers choose to drink soda on occasion is a way to manage temptation.
Lemonade is not a sin. Lemonade has lemon juice with Vitamin C and likely has less added sugar than a soda. You don't "need" Gatorade but replenishment isn't a sin.
The tax won't stop me from buying sodas but only because I don't buy that many.
We believe in drinking fewer sodas, especially with high-fructose corn syrup. Soda should be an occasional treat not a extensive habit. But if you have a habit, and I certainly did many years ago, the cigarettes and alcohol analogy sticks. You will buy no matter what tax comes along.
Berkeley said its soda consumption dropped 21% with a soda tax. The city also does education to help reduce the impact so we don't know if the reduction was tax or education related. Why we don't agree with a soda tax, we do believe in soda education.
Don't misconstrue these actions as being on the side of the American Beverage Association. The ads for both sides were equally aggravating, though the anti-tax ads were more obnoxious. We might agree on some part of one issue, but that does not make us friends. Soda is already taxed in states that have a food tax. We don't disagree with taxing soda, just not this type of set-alone tax that doesn't correlate to health improvement.
Soda taxes are lazy and ineffective. The governments that implement them are also lazy. There are strong ways to combat soda use but not the courage and bravery to fight those battles. If a billionaire won't fight these battles, regular people would have a much harder fight.
video credit: YouTube/Berkeleyside
photo credit: The Daily Show with Jon Stewart/Comedy Central