On public health, sodas just aren’t the same as cigarettes

Campaign manager Sara Soka, center, celebrates last November after Berkeley voters approved a sales tax on sodas. Steve Maviglio says it’s failing.
Campaign manager Sara Soka, center, celebrates last November after Berkeley voters approved a sales tax on sodas. Steve Maviglio says it’s failing. Associated Press file

After playing out in Bay Area elections last year, the soda wars have come to Sacramento. Once again, state Sen. Bill Monning is pushing legislation that would slap a warning label on beverages including soda, teas, sports drinks and energy drinks. Assemblyman Richard Bloom is proposing a 2 cent-per-ounce fee on sodas – but not other sugar-loaded beverages or any other fat foods.

Monning’s labeling bill failed to clear a Senate committee last week; Bloom’s tax proposal will be heard next Tuesday by the Assembly Health Committee. It faces an uphill battle because it is essentially a new tax that is likely to draw opposition for that reason alone.

Or maybe it’s because Berkeley’s much-publicized soda tax, presumably the model for statewide soda lax legislation, is proving to be a disaster.

As CBS reported in April, retailers are dazed and confused about the tax. For example, even though advocates said it wouldn’t be a tax on consumers, the popular BurgerMeister chain added a surcharge on all of its fountain drinks, including water. And when it realized that was the wrong way to implement the tax, it gave away free sodas to its customers for a week.

Kind of defeats the purpose of discouraging the drinking of soda, doesn’t it?

The authors of both bills are well-intentioned to bring attention to sugar in our diet. They are backed by the $3.2 billion California Endowment and its PR machine, which has unleashed its “Soda: The New Cigarettes” campaign.

That’s where I part company with some of my progressive friends: Soda is not tobacco. Not even close. (Full disclosure: I’ve also signed up as a consultant to the American Beverage Association to defeat the bill.)

I drink soda once in a while. When I do, I’m not affecting the health of anyone else, unlike tobacco. I’m not providing a bad role model to kids. And as far as I can tell, I’m healthy, which I wouldn’t be if I was smoking.

Soda is my lifestyle choice. I can have my kale – and a Coke. As long as I’m eating and drinking a balanced diet, exercising regularly and doing whatever else the latest magazines say is needed to stay healthy, it’s OK.

But the way Monning, Bloom and others see it, soda is a “gateway” to other bad dietary behaviors.

I get that they’re trying to draw attention to the dangers of too much sugar in your diet. But singling out soda misses the point of how to comprehensively address the health problems of a bad diet and unhealthy lifestyle.

Monning, Bloom and anti-soda activists should be lobbying for more money to educate Californians on the broader issue of living a healthy lifestyle and to strengthen the nutrition curriculum in our schools.

Proposing to put a label on a can of soda (which already has the amount of sugar listed) isn’t the solution to stopping unhealthy lifestyles. It’s just a feel-good publicity stunt.

Steve Maviglio is a Democratic strategist and former deputy chief of staff in the California Assembly who is a consultant to the American Beverage Association.