Health & Fitness

Sugar opponents rally for Davis soda tax

The Davis City Council on Tuesday will consider asking voters to approve a soda tax, a controversial proposal that has generated support from health advocates but drawn opposition from restaurants and businesses in the college town.

A coalition of past and present Davis leaders rallied Monday ahead of the vote, urging council members to place the tax on the June ballot despite expected industry opposition. The City Council is considering the soda tax among a menu of options to raise funds for the city budget.

The beverage tax proposal would add a 1-cent charge per each ounce of sugar-sweetened beverage purchased in stores and restaurants within the city. Besides soda, the tax could affect vitamin waters, energy drinks and powdered drinks.

About 50 community members voiced support Monday at a City Hall event organized by the California Center for Public Health Advocacy. The Davis-based nonprofit was a major supporter of the Berkeley soda tax, which voters there passed in November 2014.

If approved by voters, the Davis soda tax would be the second of its kind in the nation. San Francisco voters rejected a similar tax in 2014 after an expensive campaign.

Multiple speakers on Monday cited the dangers of regular sugar consumption, including diabetes, obesity, cholesterol and fatty liver disease. A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that American children, on average, get about 16 percent of their daily calorie consumption from sugar.

“The challenge of sugary beverages is quite simple – they’re a delivery mechanism to deliver fructose to the liver quickly,” said Councilman Robb Davis. “This is the beginning of a process of joining a movement. There’s no public health change that’s happened in any of our lifetimes that didn’t start with people in communities saying we need to change.”

About two dozen students from the Davis Waldorf School held signs that said “Coca-Cola stay out of our ballot box,” “Let voters decide” and “Put sugar on the ballot.” Teacher Cindy Toy said the eighth-grade students have been studying the health effects of sugar in their science classes and wanted to advocate for the tax.

But taxing sugary beverages places a huge hardship on local businesses with thin profit margins, said Javier González of the California Restaurant Association, who spoke against the tax when the council first discussed it on Dec. 15. There was also public opposition from owners of local restaurants, bars and corner stores, as well as a representative from a movie theater chain.

Bobby Coyote, owner of the popular regional restaurant Dos Coyotes Border Cafe, said he actively supports food literacy and child health, but doesn’t think a soda tax is the way to go. His restaurant offers other kids’ drink options such as milk and juice, and it’s up to parents to teach their children not to over-consume soda, he said.

“I don’t want everyone to drink soda all the time – but enough is enough,” Coyote said, referring to other new expenses restaurateurs face, such as a higher minimum wage and sick leave pay for workers. “We’ve been hit with all these other taxes, and it costs us hundreds of thousands of dollars. The sales of sodas will go down, and that does hurt business.”

Coyote said he attended the December council meeting on his own and not on behalf of industry groups.

González said the restaurant association put out an alert to its members shortly after finding out about the proposed tax, and encouraged them to show up to the December City Council meeting and to call their council members. The trade organization also sent a letter stating their position to the entire City Council. Afterward, they discussed the issue with Davis Mayor Dan Wolk, who had expressed concern that the sugary beverage measure wouldn’t pass if put on the 2016 ballot.

The restaurant association has not spent money against the Davis proposal, González said.

Four of the five Davis council members would have to support the soda tax for it to move forward Tuesday. If that happens, staff would draft language for a ballot measure within two weeks. Councilman Davis was doubtful Monday that the tax would get enough votes to move forward, but said it’s an important discussion to have.

As it stands, the proposed tax would raise revenues for the general fund, and would require a standard majority vote. The approximately $1 million that the tax is estimated to raise in its first year would go toward city improvements. Health advocates said they would meet with the Parks and Recreation Commission and the Davis Unified school board to determine how soda tax revenues can best be spent to keep Davis children healthy.

The Davis City Council is also considering a higher hotel tax, parcel tax and marijuana tax, according to its agenda. City staff recommend that if the council opts for a marijuana tax, the city should model its law after Sacramento’s and impose a 10 percent charge on gross receipts of medical and nonmedical marijuana businesses. The latter would only come into play if state voters approve recreational marijuana on the November ballot.

In the same November 2014 election in which Berkeley approved its soda tax, a 2-cents-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages in San Francisco fell short of the two-thirds support necessary. The American Beverage Association California PAC spent $9.2 million toward defeating San Francisco’s Measure E, according to city campaign finance data.

Davis soda tax advocates said Monday that they feared the soda industry has been behind the opposition in Davis.

“If this gets on the ballot, it has a fair shot,” said Dr. Harold Goldstein, executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy. “This is a progressive community that really genuinely cares about the health of their kids and their community. The people should decide, not the big beverage industry.”

Sammy Caiola: 916-321-1636, @SammyCaiola