Soda tax ballot measure attracts big bucks

August 31, 2012 12:00:00 AM PDT
A ballot measure in the East Bay is attracting some big bucks to fight it. In November, Richmond voters will decide whether it will become the first city in the nation to tax soda and other sugary drinks.

There's a lot of money at stake, so the beverage industry as well as some community groups want to make sure the soda tax initiative goes flatter than month-old root beer. They are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for billboards around town, as well as direct mailers and eventually commercials.

There are the slick direct-mail advertisements urging Richmond residents to vote no on the soda tax. Billboards have popped up around town arguing the tax would be bad for businesses like a small grocery store run by Alex Essa.

"You know, if they raise the tax, a lot of customers, they're not going to buy it anymore," said Essa.

This week an anti-tax commercial was filmed at Casper's Famous Hot Dogs and another is scheduled to be shot at the Hilltop Mall movie theater. The advertising blitz is the work of local political action group, Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes which is getting major funding from the American Beverage Association. The group has spent more than $350,000 to stop the ballot measure. Richmond City Councilman Corky Booze, who says the tax would hurt poor people, is happy for the help.

"So if you're trying to protect your community, do you turn down anybody who wants to help you?" said Booze.

If approved, the cost of soda and other sugar-sweetened drinks would rise by one penny per ounce. That is the brainchild of Councilman Jeff Ritterman, M.D., who is also a cardiologist. He says sugary drinks lead to childhood health problems and a tax would act as a deterrent. His side has been outspent more than 15 to 1.

"Well, I think that it shows they're frightened and they think we're going to win," said Ritterman

Supporters of the tax say it would raise $3 million a year for childhood fitness programs, if it can overcome the intensive ad campaign.

"It doesn't take a lot to sway people when you have a pretty sophisticated ad campaign, like this one. I do think the pro-tax measure is a good one and I hope it's successful," said Mark Wallace, a parent.

This weekend, Ritterman is in Philadelphia where he's scheduled to meet with the mayor there, getting advice on how to get a soda tax passed, something Philadelphia has failed to do twice.


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