Use the Ballot Initiative Process To Pass a Soda Tax in California

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Since 1990, adult obesity rates in California have increased nearly 250%. Over a similar period, type 2 diabetes and prediabetes rates have also risen steeply. Abundant research indicates that consumption of sweetened beverages contributes significantly to these and other public health problems. For example, the Nurses’ Health Study found that people who drank soda daily developed type 2 diabetes at almost twice the rate of people who did not.

soda4

Source: Daily Infographic

One tool to reduce sweet beverage consumption is to impose a tax on purchases of sugary drinks. A recent study found that Mexico’s soda tax reduced purchases of sugary beverages by as much as 17% in low-income households. A statewide soda tax could likewise help reduce Californians’ soda consumption. A statewide tax would be more effective than local regulation, because people cannot as easily evade a statewide tax by driving to another jurisdiction to buy groceries.  Further, proceeds from the tax could fund other statewide public health efforts and perhaps inspire similar measures in other states.

Unfortunately, the obstacles to legislative enactment of such a tax are formidable. Since 2009, the beverage industry  has spent more than $117 million nationwide to defeat proposed taxes. Statewide soda taxes have been introduced several times in the California legislature, but were defeated or withdrawn in the face of intense beverage industry lobbying.

For this reason, Public Health Advocates, the leading stakeholder supporting a soda tax in California, should launch a campaign to enact a soda tax via statewide ballot proposition, thus bypassing the legislature and taking the matter directly to the voters. A 2013 Field Poll found that 68 percent of Californians would support a soda tax if the proceeds were used to fund school nutrition and exercise programs.

A statewide ballot proposition would, of course, also face fierce soda industry opposition. But the recent success of a local soda tax initiative in Berkeley, California, which 75 percent of voters approved, provides a model for how advocacy groups can take on the beverage industry and win.

Berkeley Yes on D volunteers.jpg

Source: Bruce Azizuki, In Motion Magazine

The same grassroots organizing tactics that worked in Berkeley could help build statewide support for a soda tax – and enable California to become a public health pioneer.

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3 Responses to “Use the Ballot Initiative Process To Pass a Soda Tax in California”

  1. alexandramurata Says:

    Thanks for the great post on using ballots to pass a soda tax in California. I think that bypassing the legislature and turning to California voters provides the best chance at achieving policy change in this situation. Assuming that Public Health Advocates and grassroots tactics are able to overtake the opposition from the soda industry, I wonder how influential this change will be on similar organizations in other states. Will education and grassroots outreach be able to sway voters in other states? I am curious if states with higher current rates of obesity, such as Arkansas and Mississippi, would react negatively towards such a proposed tax.

    Another area that I am curious about, though it deviates slightly from your topic, is whether or not groups such as Public Health Advocates discuss the negative health effects of both diet and regular soda or solely regular soda. While a causal relationship between diet soda and weight gain hasn’t been established, there is certainly a lot of discussion surrounding diet soda and weight gain. A May 2016 study published in JAMA found that pregnant women who frequently consumed diet beverages were twice as likely to have overweight or obese babies one year after birth. Additionally, a study done in 2015, published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, reported that diet soda drinkers gained nearly triple the abdominal fat compared to individuals who didn’t. This brings up the question of what is the best way to reach the most individuals and empower them to make impactful changes in their lives. Should public health groups be going after only regular soda drinkers? Should public health groups try to convert regular soda drinkers to consuming diet sodas? Again, thanks for bringing up an interesting method for solving an ever growing problem in America.

  2. jabrakeb Says:

    Thanks for a great post and a bit of deja vu! I was actually living in Rockridge Oakland off of College Ave (If you’re familiar with the area) when they were polling the area about this soda tax, among others in typical Berkeley fashion. I’m sure my name is a poll somewhere with the other 75% of Berkeley!

    This tax ballot initiative appears to line up well with the work that Governor Schwarzenegger accomplished involving healthier lifestyle choices. I was in severely overweight in high school, partly due to soda consumption, and I remember when they removed all of the soda vending machines from the campus. Eliminating this choice all together helped me with my weight loss, because the temptation was not there. Gov. Schwarzenegger’s work also involved removing trans. fat from the cooking process and nutrition labels in fast-food chains throughout California.

    I agree that taking this bill to ballot polling will help more the initiative in the right direction. A ballot helps remove the lobbying pressure, because it is no longer up to policy makers to make the decision. As long as public health advocates can successfully spread the knowledge about the benefits of removing soda from a person’s diet. The public could play a large role in the implementation of this new soda tax.

    Reference Links:
    http://www.schwarzenegger.com/issues/milestone/building-a-healthier-california

  3. tehseenladha Says:

    Thanks for the interesting and educational post regarding soda taxes in California, and using grassroots organizations to promote such policy change. As a paediatrician in Canada, I routinely see children that are gaining weight at rapid rates and becoming overweight and obese very early in life. They suffer from many co-morbidities such as high blood pressure, inactivity, arthritis, diabetes and high cholesterol, not to mention the emotional effects of bullying and social ostracization.
    What I wonder about with things like soda taxes is whether it will only deter those below a certain income level from purchasing and consuming soda, whereas those that are more affluent will continue to buy it regularly. It is true that healthy food tends to be expensive and those of lower socioeconomic classes may be more prone to being overweight because the food (especially fast food) that is accessible to them is generally higher in fat and calories. I do think a tax would send a strong message about the health dangers of sweetened beverages, but I believe it could disproportionately affect lower income families and others may continue to drink soda freely.

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