Just over three months since voters in two California cities -- Richmond and El Monte -- flatly turned down soda taxes, a new Field Poll released Thursday found a majority of California voters say they would support a soda tax if the funds raised were devoted to children's health.
While only 40 percent of voters said they favor a sugar-sweetened beverage tax, that number jumped to 68 percent if the proceeds will benefit school nutrition and physical activity programs.
"Voters in general don’t trust taxes that aren’t earmarked. They prefer to see taxes linked to something beneficial," said Dr. Tony Iton, senior vice president of The California Endowment, which sponsored the poll. "People that are engaged in constructing policy ... should take heart in this poll and be able to look to it to construct subsequent measures for trying to engage the public support behind obesity prevention."
The Field Poll reported that support for such an earmarked tax was especially strong among Latinos (79 percent), Asian Americans (73 percent) and African Americans (70 percent).
"I think this poll shows that a campaign either statewide or locally in cities has an excellent chance," Wendel Brunner, Contra Costa County's director of public health, told the San Jose Mercury News.
But in the poll voters had the highest support -- more than 80 percent -- for increasing opportunities for being physically active, such as improved school sports fields and playgrounds -- and keeping those facilities open after school and on weekends.
Chuck Finnie, with the American Beverage Association, pointed out that soda taxes have failed recently, not just in California, but, he says, in other places across the country. "Poll after poll shows Americans don't believe taxing sweetened beverages is the way to reduce obesity," Finnie said in a statement. "If we want to get serious about obesity, education -- not taxes and regulation -- is the right approach."
Still, fully 75 percent of voters said they see a link between regular soda consumption and a person's risk of being overweight or obese. But they don't see the same risk from so-called energy drinks or sports drinks, and Iton finds that troubling.
"It's heartening to see that soda consumption rates are beginning to dip," he said, "but the concern is that people may be substituting with sports drinks, substituting with energy drinks, and those products have -- in many cases -- as much sugar in them. We're concerned that those not be substituted for sodas."
Californians were also highly supportive (85 percent) of having fresh, clean drinking water available in schools and other public places, such as parks. Availability of clean drinking water can be a significant challenge in some areas, especially rural school districts in the Central Valley. Many homes and buildings rely on well water, which can be contaminated with nitrites and nitrates from pesticide run-off, as well as naturally contaminated with arsenic.
Kids in school are "forced to either drink bottled water, which is expensive," Iton says, "or to substitute fluids, using things like sodas."
The California Endowment and the Field Poll have been tracking public awareness about sugar-sweetened beverages and obesity for three years. Iton says support for policies to "improve the environment" has been increasing.
These results dovetail with a recent Public Health Institute poll of rural California counties. In that survey, 94 percent of respondents said that obesity was a serious problem for the country, and 84 percent said it was a problem in their own communities.