Why, Despite Trying, No State Has Passed a Soda Tax Since 1992

In California, where the soda industry spends millions on lobbying, a bill to tax sugary drinks has been shelved. Lawmakers in four other states proposed one this year.
by | April 30, 2019 AT 4:00 AM
Connecticut state Rep. Anne Dauphinais takes a sip from a Big Gulp as Gov. Ned Lamont delivers his budget address. (AP/Jessica Hill)

SPEED READ:

  • No state has passed a soda tax since 1992.
  • Soda taxes were proposed in five states this year.
  • A soda tax bill in California has been shelved.
 

In late February, when Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont delivered his budget address at the state capitol, a number of Republican lawmakers showed up carrying Double Gulps -- 64-ounce drinks from 7-Eleven -- to protest the Democratic governor’s proposed tax increase on sugary sodas.

Lamont views the 1.5-cent-per-ounce tax as a means of balancing the budget and improving public health. But GOP state Rep. Anne Dauphinais says “that's a crock of nonsense.” She argues the measure would be regressive, hitting “those who can afford it the least” in a state already among the highest taxed in America.

Similar debates are happening in a number of legislatures this year. Statewide taxes on sugary drinks have been proposed in California, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

But soda taxes face a steep climb.

The last state to enact one was Arkansas in 1992. That law is still on the books, but soda companies and the powerful American Beverage Association (ABA) wage a perennial and expensive fight against taxes on their products nationwide.

According to a recent analysis by California Healthline, ABA spent over $1 million on lobbying in the Golden State in 2017 and 2018, while PepsiCo spent $371,482 and Coca-Cola spent $352,469. Last month, ABA reported that it spent $604,000 on ads attacking Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney over his city’s existing soda tax.

“There are better ways to help reduce the amount of sugar people get from beverages than a tax that places an unfair burden on working families and neighborhood businesses already struggling with the state’s high cost of living," the ABA-backed Keep CT Affordable told The Hartford Courant last month. “It will hurt small businesses, coffee shops, gas stations and corner stores that will lose revenue and may be forced to cut jobs.”

One such business, Avery’s Beverages in New Britain, Conn., is now printing special labels for its bottles that include a plea to the governor: “Don’t Tax Me Ned!”

It isn’t just Republicans and business interests that oppose the taxes. In some cases, Democrats have argued against them as well. Connecticut's Progressive Caucus came out against the soda tax on the same grounds as Dauphinais, that the tax is regressive and would unduly impact lower-income residents.

Still, public health advocates continue to emphasize the benefits of soda taxes.

“They educate the public about the harm to health caused by overconsumption of sugary drinks. They encourage reduced consumption. They are most effective in reducing consumption among low-income people, who are the greatest targets of soda marketing and have a higher prevalence of the consequences of soda consumption -- higher risks of type 2 diabetes and other chronic conditions related to overweight,” says New York University professor Marion Nestle, author of Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning).

The soda industry is like the tobacco industry, argues California state Rep. Richard Bloom, who authored a soda tax bill in his state this year. Both use deep-pocketed spending and robust advertising to push an addictive product, he believes. Bloom acknowledges that he's up against “a pretty savvy opponent,” but he believes “there's a growing awareness around this issue, reflected by the various local governments, states and counties taking this up.”

Arkansas, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia all impose statewide excise taxes on sugary drinks, according to NCSL. Localities currently imposing soda taxes include Boulder, Colo.; Philadelphia and the California cities of Albany, Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco.

But in some places, state lawmakers have banned cities and counties from passing more soda taxes. Such preemption bills have become law in Arizona, California and Michigan.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Heart Association describe sugary drinks as “a grave health threat to children and adolescents.” In late March, the pair of leading medical groups called on more governments to support taxes, warning labels and advertising regulations for the soda industry.

These measures, however, have a mixed record in the courts.

In January, ABA persuaded a federal appeals court that a San Francisco ordinance mandating warning labels on soda advertising violated the First Amendment. In 2014, New York’s highest state court rejected former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ban on large sodas. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, however, upheld Philadelphia's soda tax last year.

Nestle, the NYU professor, says the success of a soda tax proposal can depend on how the revenue will be spent. Kenney sold Philadelphia's measure as a means of funding universal pre-K, jobs programs and development.

“People readily grasp the two wins: less soda consumption producing better health and whatever the revenues are used for,” Nestle added. “The critical factors seem to be community organizing for public support and trust that the revenues will be used for their intended purpose.”

Even Lamont’s allies in Connecticut acknowledge the challenge he faces. State Rep. Jonathan Steinberg told the Courant that the sentiment among legislators is “very mixed. ... I think that we have more work to do to bring more in line, but I think that’s a winnable fight.”

The fight wasn’t winnable in California this year. Earlier this month, Bloom shelved his legislation, saying it didn’t have enough support.

"I think every issue has its time,” he says. “We've really turned the corner when it comes to fighting big tobacco. It took many decades to make that happen. This one's going to take time, too."

Graham Vyse | Staff Writer