Saturday, November 3, 2018

Where ‘Yes! To Affordable Groceries’ Really Means No to a Soda Tax

SEATTLE — Standing during a supermarket produce aisle, her face shadowed with dread, the middle-aged woman speaks on to the camera and makes a plea for common decency.

“We shouldn't be taxed on what we eat,” she says during a commercial that's being broadcast across Washington State.

“We got to eat to survive, and if we've to chop back on what we eat, that’s not getting to be good — especially for the elderly.”

In the run-up to polling day, residents of Washington and Oregon are bombarded with similar messages from groups with names like Yes! To Affordable Groceries.

The organizations have spent quite $25 million on commercials that feature plain-spoken farmers and penny-pinching moms urging support of ballot measures that might prohibit municipalities from taxing food sales.

But what most voters don’t know is that Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and other American beverage companies are largely financing the initiatives — to not block taxes on staples like milk and vegetables but to choke off a growing movement to tax sugary drinks.

At a time of soaring childhood obesity, and with quite one in three adults overweight, health advocates say that soda taxes are an efficient thanks to dampening consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages.

Nearly 40 countries now have them, alongside seven cities within us, including Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Boulder, Colo.

Towns and cities across the country are mulling similar moves as to how to scale back sugary drink sales while raising revenue for programs that aim to blunt the general public health impact of heart condition, hypertension, and sort 2 diabetes, conditions that are linked to diets heavy in sugar.

Now the nation’s soda giants have turned to a replacement tactic to fight them: pushing sweeping ballot measures and statewide legislation that might permanently deny municipalities the power to impose taxes on a broad range of products and services.

The initiatives are packaged and sold as citizen revolts against tax-happy politicians.

None of them explicitly mention soda taxes.

Opponents of the measures say they're fundamentally misleading because neither Washington nor Oregon features a decision to tax groceries.

“No one is even talking about taxing food,” said Jim Krieger, a professor of drugs and health services at the University of Washington.

“This is just the soda industry trying to guard its profits at the expense of public health and native democracy.”

The industry has momentum — and money — on its side. Here in Washington, the industry has spent over $20 million to market Initiative 1634, consistent with state financial filings.

Those fighting the ballot measure have raised $100,000.

Starting last year, legislatures in Michigan, Arizona, and California passed laws that preemptively bar local governments from imposing such taxes within the future.

The outcome in Oregon and Washington, political analysts say, could determine the longer-term of the country’s soda tax movement by encouraging soda companies to embrace ballot measures in states across the country.

“It’s a pivotal moment,” said Mark Pertschuk, director of the advocacy group Grassroots Change.

“It’s hard to overstate the chilling effect of getting soda taxes barred from the entire West Coast, where numerous progressive policies are born.”

Opponents of the approach criticize it as overreach.

The Oregon initiative, for instance, takes the shape of a constitutional amendment and critics to mention it's so vaguely worded that it might be wont to block future taxes on restaurant meals, electronic cigarettes, catering halls, and trucking companies that transport McDonald’s Happy Meals.

“These pre-emptive measures undermine democracy and completely deduct an area government’s ability to try to what’s best for his or her communities” said Jennifer L.

Pomeranz, a professor of public health at NY University.

“It’s a real corporate takeover of America.”

William Dermody, a spokesman for the American Beverage Association, the industry group backing the measures, countered that referendums are by their very nature

Most voters, he said, don’t want taxes on the things they put in their shopping carts — soda included.

“We believe there's a far better thanks to helping people reduce the quantity of sugar consumed from beverages and convey about lasting change, including working alongside the general public health community and offering more low- and no-sugar options,” he said.

Public health studies that have assessed the impact of soda taxes have found a big drop by soda consumption, including 21 percent in Berkeley, Calif., and 40 percent in Philadelphia.

“We know that even modest soda taxes work,” said Laura MacCleery, policy director in the middle for Science within the Public Interest.

“Because they work, soda companies fight the taxes tooth and nail.”

But critics say such taxes hurt small businesses and have an outsize impact on the poor.

“Thousands of excellent wage jobs are tied to the food and beverage industry, and therefore the taxes are regressive because they take money out of the pockets of parents least ready to afford them,” said Peter Lamb, a senior official for Teamsters Local 174 in Tukwila, Wash., which is championing the ballot measure.

The strategy of pushing pre-emptive laws and ballot measures was pioneered four decades ago by the industry and therefore the National Rifle Association as to how to prevent localities from passing antismoking ordinances or limitations on gun ownership.

The N.R.A. has been wildly successful, with 43 states now barring enactment of any
restrictions on firearms.

Although nearly all of Washington’s major newspapers have begun against the grocery tax the ballot measure, neither side features a decisive lead, consistent with polling.

But interviews with voters suggest the soda industry’s efforts to hide its involvement are working.

At a Safeway supermarket in Burien, a Seattle suburb, most shoppers expressed enthusiasm for the initiative.

“For those folks who are struggling to urge by, the last item we'd like maybe a tax on food,” Mallory Brumfield, 31, a preschool aide, said as she shopped for groceries at a Safeway supermarket together with her two children in tow.

Like many patrons, Ms. Brumfield was surprised to find out that Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and therefore the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group have provided the lion share of cash to market the measure.

“Knowing that sort of gives me pause about whether I should support it,” she said.

In Oregon, the grocery tax ballot, referred to as Measure 103, has been met with more public skepticism, largely because it involves a change to the state constitution.

Opponents of the measure have raised extra money than in Washington, around $2.6 million, including an infusion of $1.5 million last week from former Mayor Michael R.

Bloomberg of the latest York. The group backing the measure, Yes! Keep Our Groceries Tax Free!, has raised over twice that quantity, with donations evenly split between soda companies and supermarket chains.

Critics accuse the Yes on 103 campaign of spreading misinformation, citing a television the ad that claimed the initiative would prevent levies on food pantries.

“There is not any universe during which food banks are getting to be taxed,” said Matt Newell Ching, public affairs director at Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon, an advocacy group.

“It’s like saying, ‘Vote for this measure and therefore the sky will still be blue.’”

Last year, Seattle became the primary city within the Pacific Northwest to enact a tax on sugary beverages, and it might be allowed to stay in situ should the ballot measure pass.

The tax is predicted to get $20.6 million this year, money which will go toward early education, and a raft of programs that give the working poor better access to healthier foods.

Sarah Wandler, a caseworker at the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic, said soda tax revenues have provided 300 families at the clinic with vouchers to shop for fresh produce at farmers’ markets and corner stores.

“Our clients all report having healthier foods within the house, and that they try fruits and vegetables they never had before,” she said.

State Senator Reuven Carlyle, a Democrat, is pessimistic about the prospects for
defeating the proposal, but he takes the long view, citing the decades-long fight against Big Tobacco that eventually changed national attitudes.

“At the top of the day,” he said, “you can’t bury the reality, because let's be honest: nobody on the earth believes that soda is groceries.”


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