Eliminating grocery bags is all the rage these days. Several Puget Sound cities have climbed on the bandwagon to regulate grocery store distribution of plastic and paper sacks. Tacoma leaders, after months of debate, will hear a controversial Bring Your Own Bag ordinance on June 28.
But it’s been several years since state or local policy makers took a serious look at taxing an unhealthy item carried home in these bags — soda pop.
Who can blame them for their reluctance? Washington legislators approved a tax on soft drinks, bottled water, candy and some processed foods in 2010 to help plug a massive budget deficit in the midst of a recession. The tax lasted about as long as the carbonation in a cola can left open on the counter.
A $16 million initiative campaign, bankrolled by the Washington, D.C.-based American Beverage Association, killed the tax with a 62 percent public vote just months after it was adopted. The sugared-drink industry has administered similar beatdowns to at least 40 other states and communities.
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The tide might be starting to turn, however, judging by what happened last week in the City of Brotherly Love. The Philadelphia City Council adopted a 1.5-cent-per-ounce soda tax, joining Berkeley, Calif., as the only U.S. cities to pull it off.
But Philadelphia is no small, lily-white enclave dominated by academic liberal elites quick to engineer social policy. It is America’s fifth-largest city, a highly diverse metropolitan area teeming with lower-income people. The food industry’s spin machine panders to them, saying they’ll be hurt by any and all grocery taxes.
Philadelphia mayors have tried to pass soda taxes twice before. The city’s success on the third try could boost efforts this year to pass soda taxes in San Francisco and Oakland, Calif., and in Boulder, Colo.
A chorus of health experts supports taxing a product that offers nothing but empty calories. The Mayo Clinic and federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among others, note that soda increases the risk of tooth decay, obesity and diabetes. Americans seem to be catching on, as the country’s soft-drink consumption has fallen every year for more than a decade, according to analytics firm Euromonitor.
Even so, Philadelphia leaders didn’t harp on the “It’s good for you” message, out of deference to constituents who fear the growth of the nanny state. Instead, Mayor Jim Kenney offered this advice to cities based on what worked for Philadelphia: “Tie your efforts to tangible initiatives that people care about,” he told The New York Times.
Therein lies the potential lesson for public officials in the Puget Sound. We’re not aware of a resurgence of interest in a soda tax in the state Legislature, nor is there any indication Tacoma wants to float one. The idea could easily fall flat.
But when state lawmakers arrive at what seems an inevitable conclusion next year — that they’ll need more revenue to bridge a projected $2 billion to 3 billion public schools obligation — they would be remiss not to study all options, including a tax on a discretionary product that causes documented harm to consumers.
Ditto for Tacoma and Pierce County as both contemplate requests for dozens more police and sheriff’s deputies. In terms of a catchy PR slogan, they could do worse than a “pop for cops” tax.
True, a soda tax failed in Washington six years ago, but it was mixed into a confusing cocktail of beverage and food product impositions. Even then, there was no grass-roots revolt leading the opposition — just a soft-drink industry peddling a product and a message that is increasingly showing signs of wear.
An industry that may one day come down from its sugar high.