RICHMOND, Calif. (MCT) — In a few short months, New York City has pushed to new heights the national debate over sugary drinks and their impact on public health. But an equally important battle over the same turf is playing out here, in this gritty Bay Area suburb long defined by its battles against crime and poverty.
The Big Apple’s assault is being led by its slick, savvy, billionaire mayor, who has inspired admiration and ridicule with his push to ban the sale of supersized sugary drinks. In Richmond, the role of field marshal has fallen to a Brooklyn-born, ponytailed cardiologist-turned-councilman who pulls a little red wagon full of sugar around town in his quest to persuade Richmond voters to become the nation’s first to tax businesses that sell sugar-sweetened beverages.
“Big Soda is where Big Tobacco was decades ago,” said Councilman Jeff Ritterman, the main proponent of the Richmond measure that will appear on the November ballot. “They’re a formidable enemy with a ton of money at stake. They know that Richmond might knock over the first domino.”
Like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Ritterman is determined to curb consumption of these drinks by making them less available and affordable, following the blueprint that has driven down smoking among Americans. And the bigger question their tactics raise is identical: Just what is government’s appropriate role in changing personal behavior?
Richmond’s proposed 1-cent-per-ounce tax has already drawn national media attention and the interest of academics and policy experts. Similar efforts have died amid fierce resistance in other cities, and opponents are lining up to make sure the same thing happens here. The critics? They range from the deep-pocketed American Beverage Association to one of Ritterman’s council colleagues who rails against the tax at the Caspers hot dog stand he calls his “office.”
If Richmond succeeds where others have failed, it could tilt the playing field against soda advocates and accentuate the drink’s alleged role in obesity and related diseases.
“The passage of a soda tax in Richmond would be a game-changer in obesity prevention both in California and across the country,” said Harold Goldstein, executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy. “All eyes are on Richmond.”
If a majority of voters pass the measure, Goldstein said, “there will be a deluge of cities that will replicate it, (and) the soda industry knows that.”
A recent analysis by the University of California, San Francisco, concluded that a nationwide penny-per-ounce soda tax would prevent nearly 100,000 cases of heart disease, 8,000 strokes and 26,000 deaths over the next decade. Economists have estimated that such a tax would reduce consumption by 10 to 15 percent over a decade, according to the study.
Richmond’s tax would be imposed on all businesses in the city that sell any drink containing added sugars, including fruit smoothies, fountain drinks, soft drinks, sweetened teas and energy drinks. Markets, food stands, food trucks and restaurants would be expected to use inventory figures to calculate sales and pay the tax, according to city staff reports.
If merchants pass the tax onto consumers, which tax supporters expect, a 16-ounce bottle of soda that currently costs 99 cents would jump to $1.15.
The tax is expected to generate $2 million to $8 million annually, according to city estimates. A companion advisory measure on the ballot urges the city to spend the money on recreation, nutrition education and other anti-obesity programs.
Like many low-income areas, childhood obesity is a major concern in Richmond, where 52 percent of children are overweight or obese, according to Contra Costa County public health statistics.
Ritterman’s quest will not be easy. Using his personal credit card to pay for campaign mailers, he is going up against the likes of PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and the American Beverage Association, which have spent about $70 million in recent years fighting soda tax efforts nationwide, mostly at the state level, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
The American Beverage Association has already touched down in Richmond. The lobbying group hired a San Francisco-based consulting firm to help organize the anti-tax campaign.
“We are confident that as voters become aware of who is going to pay this tax and where the money is going to go, they are going to vote no,” said Chuck Finnie, a spokesman for the firm.
Finnie said the campaign will focus on three main points: that it will raise the cost of doing business in the city, that the tax will hit poorest residents the hardest, and that the advisory measure on how to spend the money has no teeth.
“Not a single penny will go to anti-obesity programs, but the proponents are misrepresenting it to say it will,” Finnie said. “It goes to the general fund, and will help close the deficit.”
Then there’s Ritterman’s nemesis on the City Council, Corky Booze, a blunt and colorful former race car driver who has hounded Ritterman on the issue for months, both on the council dais and when they cross paths at public events.
Booze, who enjoys strong support among the city’s black voters, often frames the issue in distinctly racial tones, complaining in May that Ritterman and his allies were using the black community as a “stepping stool.”
“It’s a tax on poor people, no doubt about it,” said Booze, chatting last month at Caspers, his daily hangout.
Retailers and restaurants also are solidly against the tax, said Chamber of Commerce CEO Judy Morgan.
“We have a lot of small businesses, family-owned businesses who are going to be hit hard,” Morgan said.
But some consumers say that Richmond’s sugar tax would not change what they buy and drink. At one of the corner markets that dot the city’s Iron Triangle neighborhood, residents filed in and out on a recent sunny afternoon buying cigarettes, sodas, snacks and beer.
Marco Navaro, 12, sat on his bicycle sipping a can of “strawberry fizz” soda. Navaro said he had no idea about the potential tax but that it would not change his beverage choice.
“This is 50 cents,” Navaro said between sips. “Would I buy it if it was a dollar? Yeah. I drink water at home.”