The city of Richmond puts a soda tax on the ballot in November

150 150 Matthew Grant Anson

In a world where soda is the lifeblood of high blood pressure, obesity and heart disease, the city of Richmond has had enough. 

With the City Council’s 5-2 vote on Tuesday to put a soda tax measure on the November ballot, Richmond could become the nation’s first city to pass a municipal tax on soda and other sugar-loaded beverages, such as Snapple.

But that’s assuming the residents of Richmond take to the penny-per-ounce surcharge on the beverages and actually vote for it. As with most things where the worlds of health and economics collide, it’s not a black-and-white decision. 

While Richmond projects that the tax would raise between $2 million and $8 million annually for anti-obesity projects, critics of the measure see it as an assault on the poor. Council Corky Boozé, one of the two dissenting votes, explained the reasoning behind his no-vote to the SF Gate. “This is a tax on poor people. That’s all it is,” he said. “People are going to drink soda anyway.” 

And drink it they have. About a third of African American and Latino sixth and seventh graders are obese, plus an additional 20 percent clocking in as overweight. High levels of obesity combined with the fact that nearly 20 percent of Richmond residents already live below the poverty line put the city in a bind. Does the impoverished status of such a high percentage of Richmond residents matter when considering the costs the city takes on due to its obesity epidemic? 

According to a January study from the San Francisco General Hospital and Columbia University, a soda tax similar to Richmond’s applied nationwide could prevent 100,000 cases of heart disease, 8,000 strokes, and 26,000 deaths over the next ten years.

Although Richmond stands as a pioneer in the United States when it comes to trying to set taxes related to sugar, the city is walking in the footsteps of several European nations. France already has a tax on sweetened drinks, Norway taxes sugar and chocolate and Denmark passed a “fat tax” in late 2011 where anything containing saturated fat is taxed.

The effort to raise money for suffering local coffers while fighting obesity is an idea that doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon, as cities like San Francisco and San Pablo consider similar initiatives. 

The question is whether citizens, many of whom live close to or below the poverty line, should incur yet another tax at a time where every cent counts. Is this something that other California cities could learn from as a broken budget system and the specter of further trigger cuts this fall loom over the entire state?

These are questions that Richmond and California voters will grapple with, respectively, between now and November 5.  


Matthew Grant Anson

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