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California Soda Tax Proposal Sparks Debate

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(Sacramento, CA)
Wednesday, May 8, 2013

It's a hot afternoon in Sacramento's Oak Park neighborhood. Teenagers are out of school for the day. Some have beverages in their hands. Sixteen year-old Kirk Allen is drinking a can of punch, which he bought for 50 cents. 

"I think it's smart in a way to prevent some people from buying it," says Allen, when asked what he thinks about the soda tax proposal.

"But I know people are still going to buy it if they want it."

Allen is exactly the kind of person proponents of the state tax have in mind. He's young, and consumes two liters of sugary beverages a day. Advocates say taxing sweet teas, sodas, and energy drinks would raise money to fight obesity in young people, and make consumers think twice before buying. Allen's classmates have their own doubts.

"They're already taxing us [number] one - on CRV, already for just buying any liquid." --- Stoney Trujillo, 18 years-old.

"We already have taxes on beer, and like, cigarettes, so I think we should just leave soda alone." --- San Saeteurn, 17 years-old.

"I mean it's not that bad just because childhood obesity is not a good thing. So… I mean what's a couple of extra cents on a sugary drink, you know?" ---Sophia Latifi, 18 years-old.


Just a few miles away, state lawmakers are having their own debates about the benefits and fairness of taxing sweet drinks.

"It turns out that sugary drinks are the single leading contributor to the obesity epidemic," says Dr. Harold Goldstein from the California Center for Public Health Advocacy before testifying in front of lawmakers at the State Capitol.
"One 20oz soda has 16 teaspoons of sugar," he says.   

Goldstein estimates that 1.7 billion dollars would be raised from the penny-per-once tax.

"Forty percent of kids in California are overweight, and the beverage tax will raise the money we need for healthier school meals and P.E. teachers, parks and recs programs in communities, community and school education, nutrition education," he says. 

The bill has cleared two committees, but some lawmakers are still unconvinced.  They say, if we tax sugary drinks, why not tax all products that contain sugar? Others raise concerns about any tax that would single out one industry.

"Government has got to understand that we do have choices in this country," says Republican State Senator Steve Night. Knight says a main cause of childhood obesity is that kids aren't active outside anymore. 

"When I ate that cheeseburger two nights ago, that probably wasn't the best thing for me to eat. But I did, and I had a choice to eat it. We also had that choice with our children. And I  think that the more and more we do this, the more and more we're affecting jobs, we're affecting the choices that we have here in America."
If you ask a public health expert about the benefits of taxing soda, the answer is clear.

"Taxation is one of the most effective and easy policies to prevent the obesity epidemic," says Professor Laura Schmidt at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine.

She says there's an irrefutable law in health policy: If you make something less available, you reduce demand.  

"You can make it more expensive to purchase a product, you can make it harder to get, by simply regulating it so that there aren't as many vending machines. Or there aren't as many corner stores. You can even go down to product placement. You can put it on the top shelf or at the back of the store rather than at the front of the store," says Schmidt.

Schmidt says a soda tax would be one way to reduce consumption of an unhealthy product, while preserving consumer choice.

"It doesn't mean don't ever have it. It means make it a little less abundance in the environment, or a little more costly, a little harder to get. And you will see a reduction in the problems associated with consuming that substance," she adds.

But Schmidt doesn't see California's soda tax proposal as leading to a significant reduction in soda consumption rates.

She says one-cent per fluid ounce is a very modest tax. Schmidt says to drive consumption rates down, the price of soda should be doubled.   

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