Fueled by a recent survey showing growing public support, a penny-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks appears to be gaining traction in the California Legislature.
Two Senate committees approved a bill by Sen. Bill Monning (D-Carmel) that would add a penny to every ounce of sugar-sweetened beverage sold in California. SB 622 has two goals: discourage consumption of sugary drinks and generate income to fund programs aimed at reducing childhood obesity.
"We're in the midst of a public health crisis fueled by childhood obesity," Monning said in presenting the bill to the Senate Committee on Health last week. "This legislation sets an alternative path toward health and wellness."
The Senate health committee approved the bill in a 7-2 vote. The week before, the Senate Committee on Governance and Finance approved it in a 5-2 vote.
The bill now goes to the Senate appropriations committee.
Taxing sugary beverages is not a new idea in California. A similar bill was introduced but died in the Legislature in 2010. Last fall, voters in two California cities defeated ballot measures to create local soda taxes.
The same soda industry interests that helped squash previous attempts will be back to battle Monning's new bill. Other business interests, including chambers of commerce, also oppose the bill as do many Republicans. But two factors may change the tide: public sentiment appears to be shifting and Democrats have a supermajority in both houses of the California Legislature.
Public Support Growing, According to Poll
A Field poll released in February showed 68% of California voters would support a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages if the revenue supported school nutrition and physical activity programs. Harold Goldstein, executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, said sugary drinks are the main culprit in what most health leaders agree is an obesity epidemic among young Californians.
"Sugary drinks are the largest driver of the obesity crisis," Goldstein told legislators last week. "Almost 40% of California children are overweight, and one-third of all children, including half of Latino and African American children born in 2000, will have diabetes sometime in their lives. SB 622 is a critical step toward solving this crisis by reducing consumption of sugary drinks and paying for programs to address the problems caused by these beverages," Goldstein said.
Sen. Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina) chair of the Senate health committee, said he supports the bill because it will help even the odds that Californians -- especially kids -- might choose less sugary drinks.
"We're on an unlevel playing field in terms of advertising around these products," Hernandez said. "For families living in food deserts -- low-income minority families -- these drinks become staples. If we raise costs, we know it will achieve the public health goal of reducing consumption," Hernandez said.
The California Senate's Governance and Finance Committee estimated the tax on sodas, energy drinks, sweet teas and sports drinks would generate as much as $2.6 billion a year. Other estimates predict between $1.2 billion and $1.7 billion a year.
Monning's bill directs the money to a newly created Children's Health Promotion Fund that would pay for nutrition education, park and recreation programs; physical education programs; and healthful school meals.
Opposition Predicts All Prices Will Rise
Bob Achermann, representing the California Nevada Soft Drink Association, predicted all beverage prices would rise as a result of this legislation, not just sugary ones.
"Dramatic increases in prices will be passed on to the consumer, and it won't just be consumers of sugar-sweetened drinks," Achermann told the Senate health committee last week. "We think this will raise prices on all products," Achermann said. "We think it will raise all boats in terms of prices, including diet drinks."
Sen. Joel Anderson (R-San Diego), vice chair of the Senate health committee, explained his no vote.
"This heavy-handed tax will disproportionally target lower-income working families and create another barrier to growing career opportunities for Californians," Anderson said.
Sen. Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber), the other no-vote on the health committee last week, did not respond to queries about his vote on SB 622. On his website, Nielsen lists new pieces of legislation that he ties to California voters' approval last fall of Proposition 30, which increases the state sales tax.
"The voters approved Proposition 30 in November believing that it would be the catalyst to balance the books and eliminate the need for more of the taxpayers' money. However, many in the Legislature perceive Prop. 30's passage as a green light to increase taxes and fees even more."
SB 622 is on Nielsen's list.