Advocates for a tax on soda and other sugary drinks are thirsty for more victories after voters approved ballot initiatives for such taxes in Boulder, Colo., and three cities in California’s Bay Area.
Advocates of the taxes told reporters Friday they set their sights on a broad expansion next year, with a statewide measure in Illinois and a possible city initiative in Santa Fe, N.M. In Illinois, the Cook County board of commissioners, which includes Chicago, adopted a similar tax Thursday.
“The wind is at our back,” said Howard Wolfson, senior adviser to former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, who funds the efforts through his foundation.
Karen Larimer, a volunteer with the American Heart Association who worked on the Cook County legislation, said budget problems in Illinois combined with the success of grassroots health advocates would make a winning argument statewide. “Our next move is to focus on the state of Illinois,” she said.
Santa Fe, N.M., is also looking at proposing a tax, Wolfson said.
“My guess is there will be an explosion of cities and counties and municipalities next year that will pursue a soda tax," Wolfson said.
Proponents of the tax expect a tough and expensive fight to get additional measures approved.
Bloomberg Philanthropies contributed $21 million this year to the campaigns in Boulder, Cook County and the California cities, according to Leah Marcus, who leads the foundation's efforts. The foundation previous contributed $1.6 million to efforts in Philadelphia and $650,000 to the pioneering 2014 ballot initiative in Berkeley, Calif., she said.
“We plan to continue that work throughout the year,” Marcus said.
Opponents of the measures spent $30 million in the Bay Area, $10 million in Philadelphia and $1.4 million in Cook County, she said. “We know that they’ve outspent us in every jurisdiction,” Marcus said.
The American Beverage Association, a trade group representing soda manufacturers, and other opponents contend the taxes hurt consumers and the revenues don't necessarily pay for better health. In a statement Friday the beverage association said it remained committed to comprehensive actions to cut sugar consumption, despite disagreeing over taxes.
“We're providing the new beverage options, information and encouragement to help people cut back on calories and sugar,” the group said. “While we may disagree with some on discriminatory taxes, our work with public health and civic groups to actually reduce calories and sugar consumption is a stronger way forward to bring about lasting change. We will remain engaged in public health issues because we, too, want a healthy, America.”
Efforts to tax soda, both to encourage better health and raise significant revenues, mirror an earlier strategy to raise taxes on tobacco in order to discourage smoking, according to Forrest Hainline, a San Francisco lawyer who has represented food industry clients.
“I think the same thing is going to happen with sugar, starting with soda,” Hainline said. “These wars are going to intensify and keep a lot of people folks busy for probably the next dozen years.”
Cook County, with 5.2 million residents, is projected to raise more than $200 million a year from its tax, starting July 1. San Francisco estimated it would raise $15 million per year from its initiative and the Oakland, Calif., measure was projected to generate $6 million to $10 million.
"This sweetened beverage tax provides important revenue that will allow us to avoid damaging cuts in the funding for public health and public safety," Cook County Commission President Toni Preckwinkle said Thursday after the 9-8 vote to adopt the tax. "As importantly, this tax can play a positive role in important health issues that impact many of our residents – such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease – and lessen the financial burden on our health and hospitals system."