Big Soda Wins in California: Beverage Tax Dies in Legislature

Health advocates will likely have to wait until next year to try again.
(Photo: Philippe Wojazer/Reuters)
Apr 14, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

It appears the effort to pass a statewide two-cents-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages has died in California, at least for this year. As the Sacramento Bee reported on Wednesday, the bill’s demise occurred with the legislative equivalent of a whimper: Its sponsor in the state assembly pulled the bill before it could even come up for a vote in committee, owing to a lack of support among fellow lawmakers.

It’s a sad, if not unsurprising, setback for public health advocates who have become increasingly vocal in pressing for a meaningful tax that might cut consumption of sugary drinks while at the same time raising money to fight a raging epidemic of obesity and its related ills. Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimating that nearly 38 percent of American adults are obese, and an overwhelming scientific consensus that the empty, excess calories in soda and other sugar-laden beverages are linked to heart disease and type 2 diabetes, the population at large appears to remain stubbornly opposed to taxing soda. One survey found that fewer than 25 percent of Americans favor such a tax.

RELATED: National Soda Tax Would Save Half a Million Kids From Obesity—and Save Money Too

Big soda’s tooth-and-nail fight against soda taxes and other efforts to rein in consumption has long drawn comparisons to the battle big tobacco waged a generation ago against similar regulations. But it’s funny how a chance encounter with a stack of old magazines could give a sort of Technicolor resonance to those comparisons.

This past weekend as my husband and I were browsing in a used bookstore, we came upon a trove of TV Guides from the mid-1980s. To quote my grandmother: What a hoot! Yet even as we indulged in a kind of trippy time travel, sifting through the dusty pop culture vestiges of our analog youth—“How to Tell TV’s Good Music Videos From Bad Ones” and “NBC’s The Golden Girls: The Best New Comedy of the Season”—a dawning realization occurred: Holy crap, there are a lot of cigarette ads.

Amid the flurry of full-color ads of happy smokers sailing yachts, playing in the snow, and racing motorcycles, plus one hunk seeming to rappel out of a helicopter onto a mountaintop—with the promises of lower tar, more flavor, or a new “crush-proof” box—one ad stood out the most: a double-page, black-and-white, all-text ad from R.J. Reynolds that was headlined “Passive smoking: An active controversy.”

After several paragraphs trying to debunk the “sensational media coverage” of studies showing that secondhand smoke might be harmful even to nonsmokers, the tobacco giant concludes: “For today, many nonsmokers who once saw cigarette smoke merely as an annoyance now view it as a threat to their health. Their growing alarm is being translated into heightened social strife and unfair anti-smoker legislation. We believe these actions are unwarranted by the scientific facts—and that it is rhetoric, more than research, which makes passive smoking an active controversy.”

Thirty years—and a host of tobacco taxes—later, it can be hard to imagine just how entwined big tobacco and its products were with American culture. Furthermore, the industry was wildly successful at capitalizing on its ubiquitous presence and slick, ad-driven messages of fun, freedom, and harmless pleasure to convince the public to cast a skeptical eye on the warnings of a bunch of egghead doctors and to object to government efforts to curb smoking, for years—decades even—after the first studies began to link smoking to cancer and other diseases.

No, that science never determined that smoking was the only cause of cancer, or even lung cancer, just as big soda has (correctly) pointed out that there’s no evidence drinking soda in and of itself is the sole cause of excessive weight gain or, say, type 2 diabetes. But as David Just, codirector of the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics, put it bluntly late last year: “There are no good arguments for soda in your diet.” That was after he’d released a study that seemed to support big soda’s claim that we can’t just pin the entire obesity epidemic on Coke and Pepsi.

There’s little doubt that soda and other sugary beverages are at least partly to blame, however. It only seems fair that they be taxed to help shoulder at least a fraction of the staggering health care costs associated with the epidemic of obesity-related disease, estimated between $147 billion and $210 billion each year. California’s proposed soda tax would’ve been a step in the right direction. Let’s hope its supporters take heart and try again next year.