The Elusive Soda Tax


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Cardiologist Jeff Ritterman of Richmond California pushed to pass a local soda tax last year, one small part of growing national concern over the connection between sugary beverages and obesity.

“We’ve got this tremendous problem. If we do nothing, children are going to lose years of life. It’s not their fault. They don’t even understand it.”

So begins an interview between New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman and a cardiologist from Richmond California, Jeff Ritterman, who sits on the city council and, last October, ramped up efforts to pass a local tax on sodas. The fee would be one cent on every ounce sold, and was expected to raise $2–4 million in annual revenue.

The overconsumption of soda, a widespread problem across the United States, is associated with myriad health problems: diabetes, hypertension, increased rates of cancer, fatty liver disease, and, most notably, obesity. Thomas Frieden, who directs the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has said that a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages is “the single most effective measure to reverse the obesity epidemic.” In hopes of addressing these ailments, Ritterman, with the vote of five out of seven city council members, landed his soda tax on the local ballot. The California chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics supported the program.

Come November 6, the measure nonetheless lost, not least due to powerful opposition from the American Beverage Association, which spent millions of dollars campaigning against Ritterman and the tax. But in an interview after election, Ritterman maintained optimism, looking beyond the defeat in Richmond to a larger platform: “We took a lot of criticism that this tax was more appropriate on the state or national level, and I think it’s only a matter of time before we see those efforts take hold.”