Richmond Soda Tax Campaign in Full Swing

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By Mina Kim

Jeff Ritterman, Richmond city councilman who is championing the soda tax, on the campaign trail. (Photo: Mina Kim)

On MacDonald Avenue, the city of Richmond’s main drag, Jeff Ritterman is pulling a little red wagon that holds a plastic water cooler jug filled with forty pounds of sugar. Ritterman says that's the average amount a child in Richmond consumes each year, just from drinking sodas. "The child gets overweight," he says, "and the arteries of the heart fill up with bad fat. And that’s a real health problem."

Ritterman is a retired cardiologist who likes to wear his graying hair in a ponytail. He’s also a city councilman and the man behind a November ballot measure that would make Richmond one of the first cities in the nation to impose a penny-per-ounce tax on sodas and other sugar-sweetened drinks.

According to a report from Contra Costa Health Services [PDF], more than half of Richmond’s children are overweight or obese.

At a shopping plaza, Ritterman's wagon catches the attention of passerby Michael Bracey.

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"I know what that sugar will do," Bracey says. "It'll swell you up and once you get swole up you going to get like you said, diabetes, high blood pressure or heart failure, you going to have one or the other. That's what this sugar going to do, so I think it's a good cause that you fighting right now, yeah, I’m behind it."

Shopper Raymond Landry disagrees. Holding a tall can of Arizona iced tea, Landry says the tax hurts those who can least afford to pay it. And government, he says, shouldn’t control what he has a right to do.

"I understand it’s an effort to promote health," Landry says. "But at the same time, it comes at the expense of business, and there has to be a balance between the two."

That’s how opponents of the tax are casting this proposal. The tax would be imposed as a business license fee and would require any retailer that sells drinks with added sugar -- including energy drinks and sweetened teas -- to tally up all ounces sold and write a check to the city.

For weeks, 26-year-old, Richmond native Rosa Lara has been mobilizing local business owners against the measure. City officials project the tax could raise up to 8 million dollars a year to be used for things like more sports fields, nutrition education, and other anti-obesity programs geared at Latino and African American youth. But Lara says most of the people she talks to don’t believe that’s how the money will be spent

"When I approach the people to let them know what’s going on it’s to educate them on how it’s going to affect the businesses and where the money’s going," Lara says. "The money is going to a general fund. There’s no strings attached to that money."

Lara says she’s already signed up more than a hundred business owners against the tax. Her anti-tax signs can be found on the windows and shopping aisles of several businesses on 23rd Street, a hub of Latino-owned shops. Lara says business owners worry their customers will go to neighboring cities for cheaper sodas.

At La Raza Market, where cases of soda are stacked counter high, Alejandra Nava, a cashier, says trying to track all ounces sold could mean having to hire another person.

But what makes the outgoing Lara a particularly formidable tax foe is that she has the deep pockets of the American Beverage Association -- the trade group that represents Pepsi Co, Coke and others -- paying her for her work.

Karen Hanretty is the group's vice-president of public affairs. "The American Beverage Association always opposes discriminatory taxes on our products," she says. "We think it is fundamentally unfair to single out any soft drink as a unique contributor to obesity."

But Harold Goldstein, head of the nonprofit California Center for Public Health Advocacy which supports the Richmond tax, says the real reason the soda industry is invested in the measure’s defeat is to discourage other cities from following suit. Late last month, the Southern California city of El Monte voted to put a soda tax measure -- modeled on Richmond's -- on its November ballot. The Palo Alto Daily News reports that officials in San Mateo County are researching the idea of a soda tax for unincorporated areas of the county.

Goldstein draws an interesting parallel to another product, challenged on health issues. "I think the soda industry is in the long run going to really go the way of the tobacco industry," he says, "that people are going to begin to see that the soda industry has one thing in mind and that is to protect their profits."

Back at his council office, Jeff Ritterman says he knows he has a tough fight on his hands but he says he’s determined to do this for the health his community -- especially the kids who are so overweight.  "Everybody loves their children and when we put the issue of children’s health front and center and we let people know what we’re doing then we get people’s support.

Then Ritterman begins working the phones -- in his quest for votes this November.

Listen to Mina Kim's report: