Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
July 4, 2020

Ban on grocery tax has public health implications

By TARA ABRISHAMI | November 15, 2018



Yes! campaign spent over $20 million to support the ban on grocery taxes

Last week, Initiative 1634 passed in Washington State. The measure will prohibit local governments from enacting taxes on groceries or any food or beverage intended for human consumption except alcohol, marijuana and tobacco.

A coalition known as Yes! To Affordable Groceries led the campaign in favor of the initiative. The committee spent over $20 million to support the ban on grocery taxes. On their website, they emphasized the potential harm to local economies and low-income residents a local grocery tax could inflict by making their groceries less affordable.

The motivation behind the ballot measure, and the organization, may not be so simple. According to a small note in the footer of the organization’s website, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Keurig, Dr Pepper and Red Bull North America were four of the top five contributors to Yes! To Affordable Groceries, though none of these organizations are mentioned on the website as haven given endorsements. Together, those four sugary-beverage companies are responsible for 99.9 percent of total contributions to the organization, according to the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission.

The ban on local grocery taxes proposed in Washington and Oregon considers sugary beverages like sodas as groceries. Therefore, the measures would forbid local governments from passing soda taxes — a strong motivation for companies like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo to come out fighting in favor of the ban. Opponents of the ban believe the measure is merely a tool for the soft drink industry to fight public-health initiatives and protect their profits. The coalition No on I-1634, which opposed Initiative 1634 in Washington, condemns the ballot measure as an intrusion of corporate special interests on local government at the expense of public health and citizen autonomy.

Indeed, before the ballot measure most groceries were already exempted from tax: only prepared food, soft drinks and dietary supplements were still subject to sales tax. Now that the measure has passed, local governments are unable to tax soft drinks, hindering public health intervention efforts focused on that very strategy.

There’s a strong public health argument for taxing sugary drinks. Taxing has been used as a public health tool in the past: For example, taxing tobacco was effective in reducing the incidence of smoking. Regular consumption of sugary drinks is linked to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other negative health conditions that are becoming widespread in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). There’s evidence that taxing soft drinks reduces their consumption; studies have shown that as prices of sugary drinks increase, their consumption decreases correspondingly. The CDC gives sugar-sweetened beverage taxes a “some evidence” of effectiveness rating as a public health policy, just one step away from their highest evidence rating. The effectiveness of soda taxes in reducing soda consumption can also be seen firsthand. Last year, Philadelphia was the second U.S. city to implement a soda tax, and according to recent research, residents of Philadelphia were up to 40 percent less likely to consume sugary drinks after the tax was imposed.

Soda taxes can encourage healthier behavior in other ways. In Seattle, a program called Fresh Bucks provides monetary help for low-income community members purchasing fruits and vegetables. Fresh Bucks is funded by Seattle’s soda tax, which will be allowed to continue despite Initiative 1634. 

Despite the public health reasons to support a soda tax, ballot measures and referendums such as Initiative 1634 in Washington are often simply a matter of money. Yes! To Affordable Groceries spent over $20 million to support the initiative; the opponents, in contrast, spent only a little over $45,000 according to BallotPedia. In Oregon, a similar ban on local grocery taxes, Measure 103, was also on the ballot this year. Unlike Initiative 1634 in Washington, Measure 103 was defeated. In Oregon, $7.3 million was spent in favor of Measure 103, and $6.9 million was spent opposing Measure 103.

Senior Kim Koon spoke about the complexity of the cost of the obesity crisis.

“No matter what, the obesity crisis in the U.S. will have a cost, whether it’s through a tax on individual sugary drinks or through health related medical expenses down the road,” Koon wrote in an email to The News-Letter.

Taxing sugary drinks has the benefit of preventing, rather than treating, the problem. But enacting such taxes may become more difficult in the future. The soft drinks industry won a small victory last week with Initiative 1634, which effectively prevents soda taxes in Washington state. If they continue to pour money into such measures throughout the country, soda taxes may no longer be a viable public health tool to combat obesity and diabetes.

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