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Proposals to tax soda are looking likely to fail in Pennsylvania and New York. Will one pass in DC?

Mary Cheh’s DC Healthy Schools Act proposes a tax of 1 cent per fluid ounce of sugary soft drinks. A 1 cent tax would add about $1.44 to the cost of a 12 pack of soda.  Such a tax would generate about $16 million annual and provide the $6 million Cheh needs to implement school programs that promote healthy eating behaviors as well as healthier breakfast and lunch options.

If the bill passes, DC would join at least 30 other states that impose small sales taxes on soft drinks and/or snacks. However, Cheh’s proposal is unique in that the tax would fund an educational program to foster healthy eating among DC’s youth. It is important to lay the foundation of healthy habits early one because children often develop eating and brand loyalties at a young age. 

The DC city council should pass this critical piece of public health legislation. While medical technology has certainly helped increase life expectancy, it is good public health policies that have improved the quality of life for many.

Compare the possible benefits of a soda tax to the cigarette tax. Taxing cigarettes has proven to be highly successful in reducing consumption. For every 10 percent increase in the price of cigarettes reduces sales by 3 to 5 percent and has lead to better health outcomes. Sugary beverages like soda can lead to negative health outcomes for children and adults. Obesity-related medical expenditures cost tax payers approximately 74 billion a year through Medicaid and Medicare.

A reduction in child obesity could lead to major savings for DC tax payers over the long term. In 2008 36 percent of high school students were clinically overweight and obese. If we assume that the patterns of obesity are the same among younger children, then about 41,000 children 18 and younger are overweight or obese in the District.

Researchers estimate that the cost of health care associated with obese children in 2008 is $15.97. If we multiply the number of overweight and obese children in the District by $15.97, then the total cost of obesity related health care is approximately $655,000.

While a small tax can generate millions, will it actually have the effect of reducing soda consumption? Most likely not. Studies indicate that a tax of at least 18 percent would be needed. Experts at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity argue that the tax needs to be high if we want to change American’s addiction to sugary drinks. However, city council members and the voting public may be less willing to accept a tax much higher than 1 cent. Only those who truly think that obesity is a major problem for the district would be willing to pay a higher soda tax.

Opponents of a soda tax argue that a tax would disproportionately hurt the poor who spend a larger proportion of their income on food. This may be true, but only for poor people who consume more soft drinks. The bigger problem for low-income households is having access to grocery stores that offer healthy, affordable food options. It is no coincidence that areas of the District that lack access to grocery stores (mainly in Wards 5, 6, 7, and 8) tend to have higher rates of obesity than wards in the upper Northwest. Hopefully Cheh’s program could be extended to provide food subsidies to families living in areas with few healthy food options.

The beverage industry is fiercely opposing the proposed tax. The Maryland-Delaware-D.C. beverage association and more than three dozen city grocers and restaurants have formed a group called No D.C. Beverage Tax. The group has run full-page ads in the Metro along with other local papers and radio spots.

The Campaign for Healthy Kids argues that the American Beverage Association has spent $5.4 million to fight various state and local initiatives to tax soda, and that DC is now it’s new target. They have started a petition to urge the City Council to pass Cheh’s proposal.

While much of the debate regarding the soda tax is focused on the “tax” itself, proponents of the tax need to focus more on the public health message. The purpose behind the Healthy Schools act is to fund nutrition programs and reduce consumptions of unhealthy products.  Hopefully it will be the public health message, and not the industry message, that will resonate with city council members when the act is up for a final vote later this month. Pass the soda tax, it’s good public health policy.

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Lynda Laughlin is a family demographer at the U.S. Census Bureau. She holds a PhD in sociology and enjoys reading, writing, and researching issues related to families and communities, urban economics, and urban development. Lynda lives in Mt. Pleasant. Views expressed here are strictly her own.