Policy Responses

NYC, NY: New York has been a hotbed for the debate over soda policy for several years. In 2009, Governor David Patterson proposed a 1 cent per ounce soda tax. Proponents argued this tax would raise billions for the state while addressing NY’s rising obesity rate. Opponents argued that taxing SSBs would disproportionately affect the poor. The tax was defeated, in part due to the soda industry’s multi-million dollar anti-tax ad campaign. In 2010, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed eliminating soda from the federal SNAP. This proposal was struck down by the USDA, so Bloomberg pushed first for a tax in New York City, then shifted his approach by restricting SSB container sizes. In September 2012, the New York City Board of Health approved Bloomberg’s proposal to prohibit the sale of SSBs in containers greater than 16 ounces. On Monday March 10th, one day before the size restriction was set to go into effect, a New York State Supreme Court judge struck down the measure. This ruling will likely be appealed by Bloomberg’s lawyers.

Richmond, CA: Reuters dubbed the phrase "Soda tax war" when reporting Richmond, California's debates over a ballot measure to tax businesses that sell SSBs, while the New York Times applied the phrase "Big Soda" in a similar article about Richmond. To summarize: advocates of the Richmond tax generally support this kind of policy because they believe the extra cost would deter purchasing and lower consumption, which in turn would also reduce (public) medical costs associated with SSBs, while improving public health overall. Others who oppose SSB taxes often believe that the government should not regulate business purchasing practices and individual beverage preferences, especially because SSBs aren't as harmful to people's health as another taxed substance like tobacco.

In Richmond, CA, opponents to taxing businesses that sell SSBs (as opposed to individual consumers who buy SSBs) raised the point that even this business-targeted tax would unfairly burden minority-run, small businesses. SSB corporations and lobbying groups spent millions of dollars on advertising to help defeat the tax in Richmond, partnering with groups like the NAACP. One public response to this perhaps unlikely partnership was that "Big Soda" was "exploiting race" to defeat the public ballot measure, when Type II Diabetes is more prevalent among African-American and Latino populations.

Most of us involved in this Providence mapping project believe that health disparities have much more to do with all the stressors and hardships that come with poverty, and much less to do with one single food product. Put another way, we think that those from African and Latin descent are disproportionately afflicted with these metabolic disorders not because of some ethnic or genetic predisposition, but because they are more likely to be low-income, a unjust reality due to systemic and institutional racism.

We also wonder how corporations that produce SSBs might be held more accountable for the healthfulness of their products, which are widely marketed and readily available. What if instead of requiring consumers or businesses to pay a tax, local, state or national governments required SSB manufacturers to meet certain health-related requirements? Or adhere to certain marketing guidelines, especially in terms of ads targeted at children? What do you think?

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