Debate Pops Over Richmond Soda Tax

Some Richmond residents are promoting a local tax on soft drinks, which are high in sugar content, as one way to respond to the national epidemic of obesity, which has become a major public health issue. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that roughly 90 million people are obese in the U.S. alone. The Richmond City council voted in May to place a special tax on sodas on the Nov. 6 ballot.

The soda tax would add a one-cent per ounce surcharge to soda and other sugary fruit drinks with less than 10 percent juice. Under the ordinance, grocery stores, markets, and other vendors that sell beverages would pay the business license fee and monitor the ounces sold per year. The proposal has sparked an angry dispute between advocates and opponents of the tax. Similar arguments are taking place nationwide, including in New York City where Mayor Bloomberg is proposing a ban on the sale of sodas larger than 16 fluid ounces and other sweetened beverages at restaurants, movie theaters and street carts.

Supporters of the Richmond tax are arguing that it will be a great incentive to help residents, particularly children, limit their consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages. Opponents say the proposal will not reduce consumption of sugary drinks, harm local businesses that must enforce and monitor the ordinance and penalize poor people who can least afford to pay. Opponents of the tax argued that the tax would be ineffective and questioned whether the money generated from the tax would actually go towards athletic programs and not be used for other expenses.

Councilmembers Corky Booze and Nat Bates say the tax will have little effect on consumption and will primarily target African American and Latino communities. “This is a tax on the poor, and it will hurt local business owners that have to calculate the additional costs on the sugar sweetened beverages,” said Booze. “This isn’t going to stop people from drinking soda. They will just go outside of Richmond to buy these products.” One supporter is Jeff Ritterman, retired chief of cardiology at the Kaiser Permanente Richmond Medical Center, who says he has seen the impact of high sugar consumption on the rise in numbers of obese children during his years on the job.

“These sugar sweetened beverages have no nutritional value,” said Ritterman. “They have a tremendous amount of sugar in the form of fructose and when they are ingested, that huge amount of fructose is sent to the liver, and the liver can’t handle it. “The liver converts it to fat, and it ultimately converts it to fatty cholesterol particles that make the heart’s arteries clog up, resulting in heart attacks.”

Ritterman believes he can gain the majority of residents’ support despite the opposition. “Some people feel it unfairly taxes the poor, and I remind those people that you may call the tax regressive, but these diseases are regressive,” he said. “The beverage industry particularly targets our poor communities where they are advertising.”

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