Credit: Nick Sherman

The District is poised for a second showdown with the soda industry as a majority of the D.C. Council is readying to sign on as co-introducers on legislation that would repeal the existing sales tax on sugary drinks and replace it with an excise tax. Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau plans to introduce the bill, the Healthy Beverage Choices Act of 2019, tomorrow with Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh as one of the co-introducers. Cheh tried for a soda excise tax back in 2010, but it was defeated. 

Even though excise taxes are levied on businesses rather than directly on consumers like a sales tax, studies show that excise taxes are more effective in changing customers’ buying habits. That’s because stores typically increase the prices of sugary drinks to offset the excise tax. Consumers see the higher price displayed on the sticker price or on the shelf, rather than at the register.

“If you’re standing in the beverage aisle and you’re choosing between sugar and non-sugary drinks, the higher price will change your purchasing decisions,” Nadeau says. “We really want people to make the healthier choice. In D.C., like so many other places, these sugary drinks are having a negative impact on health.” Looking at youth alone, Nadeau continues, “children are consuming 30 gallons of sugary drinks per year—that’s enough to fill a bathtub.” 

Cities like Seattle, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Berkeley, California, have such an excise tax in place. A study by University of California-Berkeley published in the American Journal of Public Health found that consumption of sugary drinks dropped 52 percent among Berkeley’s low-income residents in the three years after the city enacted a penny-per-ounce excise tax on sugar-sweetened beverages in early 2015. 

Nadeau’s legislation proposes a 1.5 cent per ounce tax on sugary drinks. She and community organizers pushing this legislation forward estimate that the new excise tax could bring in about $21 million in revenue annually. 

According to Nadeau, that money would be earmarked for D.C.’s Birth to Three program; “food as medicine” initiatives such as the Produce Rx program that allows certain District residents to fill prescriptions for fresh produce at farmers markets and at the Giant in Ward 8; healthy food retail programs; grants for more programming in the city’s green spaces; and grants to help D.C.’s Food Policy Council carry out its goals.

The excise tax focuses on drinks that list any form of natural common sweetener as an ingredient. It does not impact any beverage where milk is the primary ingredient; beverages for medical use; products used to feed infants; 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice; alcoholic beverages; or unsweetened drinks where the purchaser can add a sweetener at the point of sale. 

Nadeau says she expects Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and Councilmembers Cheh, Trayon White, Brandon Todd, Charles Allen, Elissa Silverman, and David Grosso to sign on as co-introducers of the bill. But she also has support outside of the Wilson Building. 

“The grassroots [momentum] has been a large part of what’s driven this legislation,” Nadeau says. “One of my favorite things to do is take ideas from the community and turn it into legislation. The coalition has been laser-focused on ensuring that we have a tax that is effective in changing behavior that leads to better health outcomes.” 

She’s describing community organizers who have galvanized under the umbrella of the #DontMuteMyHealth movement including Stuart Anderson of Families and Friends of Incarcerated People and Green Scheme Executive Director Ronnie Webb. Together they made a video titled, “Watch This Video and You’ll Never Drink Soda Again.” 

“Everything I do starts and ends with an addressment to violence,” Anderson says. He believes food determines your mood. But there’s more to it: “This piece of legislation is about saving lives. Black folks are dying faster than anyone else from curable and preventable diseases and sugar is a contributing agent to many of those. Sugar became our first addictive habit. We’ve done this with everything we give to our infants, our toddlers so by the time they get in school they’re twisted on sugar. If it ain’t sweet, they don’t want it.” 

With his organization, Webb works to teach kids how to care for gardens and grow food through a curriculum developed with American University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He supports educating people about the importance of consuming less sugar, especially in Wards 7 and 8 where there isn’t nearly the same access to grocery stores as other parts of the city. 

“We’re seeing a 17-year life expectancy difference between east of the river as opposed to other wards,” Webb says. “I think the community is going to fully embrace [the legislation] because right now the tone in the community is gaining control of our health.” 

Like Nadeau, DC Greens Executive Director Lauren Shweder Biel, who supports the move towards an excise tax, believes the D.C. Council will be successful this time around because of people like Anderson and Webb.

“In 2010 when this was tried, there really wasn’t the same degree of ground game in place,” she says. Her organization works on local food access, food policy, and food education. “What we’ve been able to accomplish over the past 10 years is building a really strong grassroots network of folks who are tired of being targeted by the beverage industry … There are so many strong community leaders and voices that are standing solidly behind this legislation and this push to get poison out of the community.”

That said, Shweder Biel and others expect significant pushback just like other cities have experienced. When Philadelphia was working toward passing its excise tax legislation back in 2016, for example, the soda industry spent $9 million on the fight it lost. 

Opponents, such as the American Beverage Association (ABA), typically lean on the reasoning that an excise tax on sugary drinks is a “regressive tax,” which disproportionately impacts low-income families. Some say physical activity and overall diet are bigger factors in determining better health outcomes. In response to the fight in Philly and other cities, the soda industry seems to have shifted its strategy to focus on proactively passing laws that prevent cities and states from imposing new taxes. That strategy is outlined in a August 2019 Politico article. City Paper has reached out to ABA for comment.

“There was a leak on Friday,” Nadeau says. “They’ve been in the building today knocking on doors and leaving materials behind. We knew that would happen. Hopefully we’ll be able to have a very respectful conversation even though we’re going to be disagreeing on this policy. I believe the voices of the grassroots are what will carry the day on this legislation.” 

This story was updated after Nadeau’s office shared the draft version of the bill that will be introduced tomorrow. It now reflects the name of the bill and which beverages would be excluded from the excise tax should the bill be signed into law.

“All soda”by Nick Sherman is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0