The tax is intended to raise money for projects to tackle childhood obesity, and the ballot includes a companion advisory to the tax, recommending its use for sports programs and health education for young people. It would add a one cent per ounce surcharge on sugar-sweetened sodas and other sugary drinks that contain less than 10% fruit juice.
The American Beverage Association is a long-time opponent of soda taxes, claiming that it is unfair to single out one part of the diet as the sole cause of obesity, and that such a tax would be ineffective and regressive, disproportionately affecting the poor.
It said in a statement on its website that although childhood obesity has increased “at a staggering rate”, “a tax on soda is bad public policy for many reasons we’ve discussed before.”
It added: “Should small businesses and restaurants be responsible for the cost of building playgrounds and gardens? Should the person who purchases cranberry juice or chocolate milk in the city of Richmond [bear] the cost that gets passed along to them at the point of sale? Can businesses and consumers afford to pay more?”
Opponents also include local business owners and grocers who claim the tax will put them at a disadvantage compared to those in nearby cities.
But Councilman and former cardiologist Jeff Ritterman, who proposed the measure, said that soda has no nutritional value, and has suggested that other cities may follow Richmond’s lead in levying a tax.
There has been conflicting evidence on the potential effect of a soda tax on obesity, with some research suggesting that children would turn to other sources of calories even if a tax led them to cut sugary drink consumption. On the other hand, a USDA study, drawing on National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) data, found that increasing the price of sugary sodas by 20% could cause an average reduction of 37 calories per day, equivalent to 3.8 pounds of body weight over a year for adults, and an average of 43 calories per day, or 4.5 pounds over a year, for children.
Other cities and states have proposed taxing sugary soft drinks, but proposals have been quashed before they made it as far as the current Richmond bid, most recently in Philadelphia and Hawaii.