Feb 22, 2010

Pop. The new Tobacco

California legislators recently pledged to pass a soda tax, and similar proposals have opened up other states. Beverage company lobbyists face an uphill struggle to flatten them all.

After successfully quashing discussion of a federal tax on soft drinks last year, Coke, Pepsi and the fast-food industries may have killed the snake, but 50 new heads just popped out. [pun intended] The States are strapped for cash and see an easy revenue in taxing your soda pop.

In California, they were falling all over each other to pass a tax in light of new study linking soft drink consumption to obesity in children and adults. One study suggests that obesity and related problems cost California alone $41 billion a year in medical expenses and reduced productivity. One can imagine the huffing and puffing behind closed doors? That should have been ours!

So far new taxes on soft drinks have bubbled up in 12 states, including a bill that recently passed the Colorado Legislature. The city of Chicago currently taxes soft drink sales. And the glass. And the Ice....

In Washington, D.C., the Pop industry spent at least $18 million on lobbying and millions more in bribes campaign donations to key officials, thus keeping their product from funding the National Healthcare. The industry also partnered with community and minority groups to oppose a federal tax, based on the argument that a tax on sodas would disproportionately affect poor people. A joke about orange soda would be racist, even though that was their argument. Just to be safe, I'll make a comment about how that tax on Diet Coke would disproportionately affect the typical white suburban housewife.

Their strategy has begun to go flat. One of the most prominent organizations, the National Hispanic Medical Assn., has dropped its alliance with the industry, and the California affiliates of two other groups have split from their parent organizations and are considering support for taxes on sweetened soft drinks. Oh oh, they must have seen the bubbles on the wall, or the fat kid in the hall.

Kevin Keane, a senior vice president for the American Beverage Assn., called the tax idea a "money grab" that would hurt working families. "Congress understood that a consumer tax would only add to their pain, not help it," he said. The statement 'duh' echos in my head.

When California Senate Majority Leader Dean Florez (D-Shafter) introduced his soda tax bill, he said one penny of tax per teaspoon of added sugar in any sweetened beverage would generate as much as $1.5 billion each year. That money would pay for parks, recreation and school health programs, Florez said. And, to support that idea, that's 19 cents per can of Coke. He should double it for High Fructose Corn Syrup - and that way we can have the Federal government subsidize the corn production and the States can get it back through their taxes. America... the beautiful... for amber waves of corn...

"The Legislature is primed for this bill," Florez said, adding that he expects bipartisan support. Because, how can you be for fat kids?

Industry officials say they are voluntarily taking steps to discourage soda overconsumption. For example, the American Beverage Assn. worked closely with First Lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign and pledged to prominently display nutrition information on drink containers and vending machines. Foo' American kids can't read!?

"There is no industry in America that has stepped up to do its share to address a complex societal problem like childhood obesity more than the beverage industry," Keane said. Most likely because a tax is the first step before criminal damages and lawsuits start flying. I'm guessing someone around the Pop Association was watching the Big Tobacco cases?

That argument angers public health advocates such as Harold Goldstein, head of the nonpartisan California Center for Public Health Advocacy, which helped Florez craft his bill.

Goldstein sees the beverage industry's voluntary measures as part of "a concerted effort to undermine discussions across the country" about taxing soda. And he was highly critical of the industry outreach to minority groups that suffer most from obesity.

The hard work by Kim Geiger and Tom Hamburger

Now here's the fun part: On one hand, I have to say congratulations to American Legislatures on this one. They've found a product that they don't like: Soda, have found that while it doesn't cause violence, it does strain their budgets in the long term because of obesity and increased wear and tear on their roads. I was going to say sidewalks, but come on. So they've learned to TAX it rather than ban it. Nevermind, as I mentioned earlier that the farmers are getting federal subsidies to grow the stuff in the first place, making soda pop cheaper than water in some places. And if you consider that a Diet Soft Drink has no actual benefit in terms of calories or thirst quenching ability - it's just chemical laden bubble water - and how much energy goes into producing this elixir...

Now in the olden' days, the good ole' days the government would just prohibition the stuff. But they learned with big tobacco, you can still take their money, and publicly shame them at the same time. I really can't believe this didn't happen with Crystal Pepsi. But they're catching up, and they're learning.

Now don't cry too hard for Coke or Pepsi, they've been gearing up for this battle for years. Coke and Pepsi have both been buying and building bottled water, orange juice, sports drinks - and more importantly Energy Drinks to divest their portfolios. And by the time there's a dime tax on your Coke, it'll be about the same time Red Bull is available out of the tap at the McDonald's.

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