Push is on for a soda tax in California

Tax on drinks cap childhood obesity

Scripps Howard News Service - A soda tax? Michael Staitman mulled it over as he stood gazing at coolers stacked with Dad's, Dr. Brown's and something orange-lemon called Dog Drool at a soda shop in Ventura, Calif.

Health care advocates say a tax on sweetened drinks is the way to cap childhood obesity. Staitman, a 52-year-old Army veterinarian, sees the specter of paying 12 cents more for a bottle of root beer one more example of government trying to fix mistakes made at home.

"I'm happy to pay for schools," he said. "But I'm not going to pay for fat kids."

Nearly 67 percent of voters in the San Francisco Bay Area city of Richmond rejected a penny-an-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened drinks in November. Residents of El Monte in Los Angeles County turned down a similar tax; 77 percent said no. At least two state bills for a soda tax fizzled in committee. Another proposal was introduced by Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel, on Feb. 22.

But a Field Poll survey from February brings hope to health care advocates who cite reports suggesting sugar-sweetened beverages are leading contributors to the obesity crisis. People in the poll were not initially receptive. Only 40 percent said they would support a soda tax but that rose to 68 percent if proceeds were to be used to improve school nutrition and physical activity.

"I think people are recognizing more and more the burden obesity places on society," said Dr. George Flores of the California Endowment, a private health foundation that funded the study. "Maybe we have momentum."

Advocates worry a statewide ballot measure would face challenges, because of the lobbying power of the beverage industry and the difficulty of convincing voters the money would be spent fighting obesity. Instead, they're pressing for local communities to take up their cause and pass their own taxes.

"As soon as any single place passes a soda tax, the floodgates are going to open," said Harold Goldstein of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy. "I think the obesity and diabetes epidemics are costing enormous amounts of money. Cities and states across the country are looking for sources of revenues to solve the problems that these products are causing."

Goldstein cited a 2010 University of California-Berkeley study that attributed at least 20 percent of the weight gained by Americans over 30 years to the explosion of sugary beverages.

"An average American drinks 45 gallons of this stuff a year," he said, citing a 2011 study led by researchers from Yale and the University of Illinois at Chicago. "That's 42 pounds of sugar."

The rebuttal comes from Robert Achermann, executive director of the California/Nevada Soft Drink Association, which represents companies producing everything from Coke to Snapple. He challenged Goldstein's assertion that the drinks are the No. 1 contributor to obesity.

"It's more complicated than that," he said. "It's not just one thing you eat or drink. It's calories in and calories out."

A tax might not persuade people to drink less soda. But the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said obesity brings medical care costs of $147 billion a year. Goldstein contends a tax would recoup some of that money.

(Contact Tom Kisken of the Ventura County Star in California at TKisken@vcstar.com)

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