Bill Monning breathes new life into soda tax effort; industry fights back.

Counting Calories: Emily Sciolto of the County Health Department buys a bottle of water at the Health Department, where vending machine offerings are limited to sugar-free drinks like water and Coke Zero.

The debate over taxing sugar-added beverages is even more divisive than the age-old Coke-versus-Pepsi question. Some studies demonize soda for the rise in obesity; others defend it, blaming snack food and other treats. 

State Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel, thinks there’s enough evidence to single out sweetened drinks as a cause of obesity. And he’s looking to treat them more like cigarettes with a proposed penny-per-ounce excise tax. 

Monning’s been here before, when he proposed a nearly identical bill about two years ago while an assemblyman. That bill never survived even one committee. But the Senate version, SB 622, has already passed through the Health and Government and Finance committees, each along party lines. 

Along with the opportune timing of a bill re-introduced after California Democrats got boosted to a supermajority, Monning says public opinion is behind an excise tax.

“It’s a little bit of a different playing field now,” Monning says. “We have the benefit of the California Endowment poll in October, showing 68 percent of Californians favor a tax if the revenues go toward fighting obesity. That’s one change in landscape that we think is very significant.” 

The beverage industry is lobbying hard against Monning’s bill, and its critics highlight a different data point in the same poll: Fifty-three percent oppose a tax without a specified use of revenue. The tax would net an estimated $1.7 billion per year, which would fund childhood nutrition and physical education programs.

The American Beverage Association’s lobbyist in Sacramento is advertising its case against the tax directly to voters. The association has more than 100 member companies, including Coca-Cola, Nestle Waters, PepsiCo, Honest Tea and Red Bull.

The association’s PAC, the American Beverage Association Strategic Advocacy Fund, spent $4.7 million last year, and contributed $1,000 to Monning’s predecessor in the Senate, San Luis Obispo Republican Sam Blakeslee.

“If you raise the cost incrementally, you decrease consumption,” Monning says. “Sugar-sweetened beverages are a cause [of obesity]. Reduce consumption; that’s the first public health objective.”

American Beverage Association Spokesman Chuck Finnie disputes the connection between health and soda: “Beverages account for an average of 7 percent of the total caloric intake of the average American.”

Chris Moss, regional coordinator for the Nutrition and Fitness Collaborative of the Central Coast, says it’s more important to look at the calories added to American diets over the past 30 years. “[Sugar-added beverages] may not be the major proportion of our calories, but they are the major proportion of new calories,” she says.

With a $600,000 annual budget, Moss’ County Health Department team coordinates about 50 service providers, including dentists and nonprofits, to educate people in Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Benito counties about nutrition. “It’s really easy to drink an awful lot of calories without feeling full,” Moss says.

She’s awaiting approval from the California Department of Public Health before releasing new study findings, but she says some local families reported consuming no water in a 24-hour period. Instead, they drank juice, coffee and soda. 

“Sugary drinks seems to be the area where we can make the biggest difference,” she says.


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