The D.C. Council’s decision on May 20 to take a proposed “soda tax” off the table for pending legislation was an unfortunate mistake — one made during an election year when council members may be more tuned in to campaign contributions from soda companies than effecting positive change in public health.
Councilmember Mary Cheh (Ward 3), who proposed the bill, rightly told The Washington Post on Friday: "I'm deeply disappointed. We had a good policy choice on the table."
Why is it good policy? The bottom line is that Cheh’s proposal would take our capital city far in reducing sugar consumption among the city’s adults and our children, who are suffering from a high obesity rate that’s caused by poor eating, drinking and no exercise habits.
Those children — whose parents are too often making poor decisions about their kids’ health — are starting bad habits too early. A 20-ounce soda for breakfast? It’s a chilling thought to anyone who knows the damage that high volumes of high-fructose corn syrup causes to the body after years of consumption. Just think of the benefits a child can get from drinking a glass of water, maybe half of a glass of orange juice mixed in, rather than a 20-ounce bottle of soda, which contains more than 16 teaspoons of the equivalent of sugar.
Soda in any form should not be a staple in any grocery cart. Our city’s epidemic of diet-related disease needs to be penalized, and a tax on soda in the District of Columbia would be a strong disincentive toward reversing this habit. First lady Michelle Obama is already leading the way on the public health front, and having the city she lives in — at least for the next several years — lead the way on public health would go hand in hand with her pioneering efforts.
In closing, a recent history lesson: When federal agencies started to educate the American public on the ill effects of tobacco, tobacco companies fought like crazy. Flash forward to this week, when the American beverage industry fought tooth and nail — and succeeded — to persuade the D.C. Council to yank Cheh’s bill. Even a last-minute push in favor of the bill by actor Morgan Freeman couldn’t save it. The beverage industry should learn from Big Tobacco’s experience and save themselves a lot of money, anguish and time. That industry — and every resident of the District — should get on board and support not only a small tax on soda but also increased labeling and education about healthy drinking habits.
Other cities like Philadelphia and Baltimore are pondering soda taxes. Will they arrive at the plate before the District? Let’s hope not, and let’s keep pushing forward to make the District cutting-edge in public health.
Kathy Kemper is founder and CEO of the Institute for Education, a nonprofit foundation that recognizes and promotes leadership and civility locally, nationally and in the world community.