California’s Ban on Soda Taxes Should Not Stand

(The Bloomberg View) -- The small but growing parade of cities battling obesity by imposing taxes on sugary drinks ran into a wall last month, when California outlawed the practice. But that wall, meant to stand until 2031, is already looking flimsy. Public health advocates are moving to bring it down in two years by persuading voters to pass a hefty statewide tax on soda.

It’s a smart counterstrike that deserves to succeed. A state tax would nudge all of California to lower soda consumption, as Berkeley residents have done since their city became the first in the U.S. to pass a sugary-drinks tax in 2014. (Bloomberg Philanthropies helped fund the campaign for the Berkeley tax, as well as a study measuring its benefit.)

Less sugary-beverage drinking, in turn, stands to alleviate the health problems linked to overindulgence — including diabetes, heart disease, tooth decay and some cancers — and decrease state spending on treating those conditions.

The soda industry’s aversion to taxes on sugary drinks is further proof they work. The American Beverage Association blatantly coerced the California state legislature to pass its local-tax ban last month. The association spent $7 million to gather signatures for a ballot measure that, if passed, would have made it difficult or impossible for the state or local governments to levy any new taxes or fees — by requiring a two-thirds vote from city councils and county boards rather than a simple majority. The legislature quickly passed the 12-year soda-tax ban in return for the soda association’s agreeing to withdraw the initiative.

The beverage makers’ cynical triumph will be short-lived, however, if the California Medical Association and the California Dental Association can get their measure — a 2-cents-per-fluid-ounce state tax on sodas — on the 2020 ballot and passed. What’s more, the state would be able to raise an estimated $1.7 billion a year for health programs that address the overconsumption of added sugar and the health problems it causes.

Unfortunately, California is not the only state to bar local sugar taxes. Following the lead of the tobacco industry, which encouraged state preemption of local tobacco taxes and smoke-free policies, the beverage industry is prodding many states to outlaw city soda taxes. Arizona and Michigan have already done so; efforts in Washington, Oregon and Pennsylvania are underway. Public health advocates in these states must fight back, too, and preserve local authority to protect their citizens from the life-shortening consequences of too much added sugar.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg View editorial board.

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