Beverage Tax Draws Criticism

James Wright | 5/19/2010, 9:46 a.m.

D.C. Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) wants to add a one-cent per ounce tax on sugary drinks to help fight obesity among District youth. (File photo of Mary Cheh)

A proposed tax on carbonated sodas in the District of Columbia has become a bone of contention among residents who insist they are already overtaxed and the tax will primarily affect the poor.

"I don't think it is a good idea to have a regressive tax during an economic recession," Nate Bennett-Fleming, 25, of Southeast, said.

"This tax will affect poor people who are already paying too much for services and products anyway."

D.C. Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) has proposed a one-cent tax per ounce of soda and other sugary beverages sold in the District, with the intent of funding her recently passed Healthy School Acts of 2010 legislation. The legislation seeks to improve the nutrition and health of public school students by providing more affordable, healthier meals to students, establishing farm to table programs, and funding wellness and physical fitness programs.

Cheh estimates that the bill will generate about $9.42 million a year, according to numbers on Cheh's Web site attributed to the city's Chief Financial Officer. Six and half-a million of the tax's revenue would go to the implementation of the bill with the rest allocated to programs that will assist churches and other organizations fight obesity.

The legislation received the early support of D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray (D), however, he said that he isn't fully on board with the soda tax yet.

"There is no doubt that I want to see the bill fully funded," Gray, 68, said.

"We have to do something to encourage the fitness of our kids. While I think that we should look at the soda tax because it is not as high as some people say it is, there are other options on the table, such as looking at expanding the sales tax or some other means."

A coalition of business and restaurant owners have started an organization -- The No D.C. Tax Beverage Coalition -- that is opposed to the tax and has a Web site that lists its members and a petition for residents to sign to supports its cause. Members include the D.C. Republican Committee, Benning Liquors, Safeway Inc., Jack's Famous Deli and Georgetown Liquors.

The Campaign for Healthy Kids, Earth Day Network and the Capital Area Food Bank support the tax. They contend that it will fight childhood obesity and encourage better dietary habits among District residents.

Brian Banks, director of advocacy and community outreach for the Capital Area Food Bank in Northeast, said that many residents support the proposed tax.
"This tax is nothing new," he said.

"Currently, 33 states, including Maryland and Virginia, tax sugar-sweetened beverages. Recent polls have demonstrated that over 70 percent of the city's population supports implementing the soda tax."

D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who chairs the powerful Committee on Finance and Revenue that deals with tax policy and city revenue and expenditures, has been quoted in the media as saying that he is not in favor of it. D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty (D) said that he will "wait until the Council gets farther along with the budget process" before deciding whether to support it or not.

Ed Lazere, executive director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, an organization that study's the city's fiscal and tax policies and its impact on residents, said that the soda tax does have its advantages.

"The tax can be a deterrent to young people who are obese and by having it taxed, they might decide not to buy sodas," Lazere, 45, said.

"The tax will encourage healthy dietary habits and in that way, it can be considered helpful."

However, the biggest drawback may be economic, Lazere pointed out.

"Residents and businesses may decide to go to Maryland or Virginia to purchase sodas and that could have an economic impact," he said.

The Council is set to vote on the soda tax proposal on May 25.

Bennett-Fleming said that fighting obesity is a good thing but a tax is not the way to do it.

"People in D.C. pay too many taxes anyway so why add this one," he said.