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Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Bill Pops Soda’s Bubble

To make a point to the assembled crowd at Marina’s Monterey Bay Science, Education and Technology Center last Friday, Assemblymember Bill Monning recalled a commercial that reached 111 million viewers on Super Bowl Sunday. The ad showed a Latina woman holding a liter of soda, asserting herself in bold defiance of forces that would try to tell her what she could or could not drink. PepsiCo paid $3 million for the 30-second spot; Monning invoked its as an example of the aggressive campaign soda manufacturers are waging for a particular demographic. “They are targeting minority communities because that’s where we have the more abundant consumption,” he told the crowd.

Monning was holding a press conference to introduce the public to his newest bill, AB 669, or California’s Sweetened Beverage Tax Law, a measure that would impose a one-cent-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened drinks—sodas, sports drinks, sweetened tea and energy drinks—sold across the state.

Diana Jimenez of the Northern Monterey County Chapter of League of United Latin American Citizens, who spoke after Monning on Friday, had another image in her thoughts. “What comes to my mind,” Jimenez said while pledging her support for the initiative, “is watching a young Latino mother pour soda in a baby bottle and give that to her toddler. I think education in regards to addressing the negative effects of these drinks needs to happen in our community.”

Revenue from the measure, which Monning’s office estimates could be as high as $1.7 billion annually, would fund nutrition education programs meant to act as a counterbalance to corporate advertising to low-income and minority communities, combating epidemic rates of childhood obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

The assemblyman held the Super Bowl commercial up as one of the ways in which soda companies are actively targeting minorities, but it is also an example of the overwhelming opposition faced by healthy eating initiatives like Michelle Obama’s national childhood health campaign, “Let’s Move;” chef Jaime Oliver’s “Food Revolution” campaign (funded by a $100,000 TED grant); and now, AB 669.

Measures of this kind have been seized upon as an example of free choice beset by government interference, incurring the wrath of conservative pundits like Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin. Limbaugh, a critic of “Let’s Move,” recently touched off a firestorm by suggesting that Michelle Obama was a hypocrite (and fat) after she was spotted eating ribs; in December Palin brought cookies to a Pennsylvania school in defiance of a bill banning junk food in lunch lines that she called “the nanny state run amok.”

In addition to large corporate advertising budgets and criticism from conservatives, AB 669 faces tough questions from progressives about whether it constitutes a regressive tax, meaning it unfairly and disproportionately affects low-income communities. The concerns are not lost on Monning, who acknowledged that sodas are consumed overwhelmingly by low-income populations because they are readily available in those communities, whereas healthy alternatives often are not. But he casts the tax as a way of leveling costs to the taxpayer.

“This bill does not take any product away from the consumer. It starts to price it equivalent to the public health consequence that it’s creating,” he said. “People will still be free to choose this, hopefully in moderation and not consuming it as a diet staple.”

He also told the crowd last Friday that “we need to expand access to healthy foods and healthy food alternatives.” To that end, he has recruited the support of Second Harvest Food Bank and other community health organizations to provide nutritional education to food stamp-eligible groups. Among the organizations pledging their support for the measure are Salud Para La Gente in Watsonville, Dientes Community Dental Care in Santa Cruz and the Central California Alliance for Health.

Alan McKay, Executive Director for Central California Alliance for Health, spoke specifically to the tax issue. “If we’re going to talk about taxes we have to realize that there is a hidden tax associated with chronic illness that every taxpayer carries.” He added that his organization provides support for more than 118,000 low-income individuals on the Central Coast, at an annual cost of $250 million. In supporting the bill, McKay says that “we have a great opportunity to lower that cost and improve quality of life by taking steps to improve nutrition.”

California’s Sweetened Beverage Tax Law is expected go into hearing in March or April, after the ongoing budget crisis is resolved. The bill is likely to face the State Assembly’s Tax and Revenue Committee first.

posted by CASFS 2006 @ 9:49 PM

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