Health advocates’ efforts to curb consumption of sugary soft drinks have brought results in high-profile battlegrounds on both coasts.
In the East, Baltimore started enforcing a law on Wednesday that prohibits restaurants from offering sweetened drinks in their kids meals, while Philadelphia’s controversial tax on sodas was upheld by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, the California Dental Association and the California Medical Association have cleared the first hurdle in putting an initiative on their state’s 2020 ballot to levy a statewide tax on sugary soft drinks. The levy would significantly raise the price of sweetened beverages relative to what customers pay for other sorts of beverages, a strategy that has significantly reduced consumption in municipalities where such a tax was implemented.
The paperwork to put an initiative on the ballot was filed by the health groups four days after a bill prohibiting California towns and cities from adopting their own tax was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown. The controversial measure was the focus of intense lobbying by beverage retailers and suppliers, and followed San Francisco’s decision to levy a tax.
The efforts to curb soda consumption are intended at least in part to bolster the health of residents (children, in particular) by steering consumers toward beverage choices that are perceived as being more healthful. “Reducing sugary drinks is the No. 1 thing we can do to fight childhood obesity,” Leana Wen, the practicing medical doctor who serves as Baltimore’s health commissioner, told a local news station when that city’s ban was approved in April.
Baltimore is believed to be the largest city in the nation, and the first on the East Coast, to mandate that restaurants not list soda as a kids meal option. The measure was aimed at national chains that routinely include a soda in bundled meals marketed for children. Instead, menus must list water, fruit juice or milk as the default options.
However, children can still be served a soda if a parent orders it for them. The ban extends to any type of sweetened soda, including diet drinks.
Similar bans are already in effect in seven California cities and Lafayette, Colo.
Philadelphia’s beverage tax broke new ground when enacted in 2016 because it was championed as much for its fiscal impact as it was for its expected health benefits. The 1.5-cent-per-ounce levy has generated an estimated $79 million in new revenues for the City of Brotherly Love, which has earmarked the proceeds to fund prekindergarten schooling, the construction and upkeep of parks and the maintenance of the city’s libraries. Opponents say it has reduced the beverage sales of some retailers by 50% and some stores’ overall revenues by 10%.
The court challenge alleged that the revenues generated by the tax were flowing into the city’s general fund rather than being used wholly for the purposes cited in the original tax bill. Opponents argued that the measure was illegal, but the state Supreme Court disagreed, ending about two years of litigation.
The decision is seen as bolstering the stance of pro-tax advocates elsewhere in the nation.
Similar taxes have already been approved in San Francisco and Seattle. Chicago’s host county passed such a tax last year but quickly rescinded it amid an outcry from restaurants, retailers and consumers.