California just banned soda tax — it should set off alarm bells everywhere

California just banned soda tax — it should set off alarm bells everywhere
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At the California State Capitol last Thursday, teenage health advocates from Stockton urged lawmakers to stand with communities like theirs and put people’s health over corporate profits. After more than a year of knocking on doors, talking with people at farmers markets, and attending community events to build support for a soda tax in their city, these young activists were up against an unexpected challenge — a state law that would render their efforts meaningless by banning cities from adopting soda taxes until 2030.

These young people talked emotionally about how chronic health problems affect their families in a city where 36 percent of youth suffer from diabetes or pre-diabetes — and shared how the beverage industry misleads consumers about the safety of their products.

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As the youth spoke out against the bill, the other side was conspicuously quiet. That's because the American Beverage Association — representing the soda industry — wasn’t even in the room. It didn’t need to be — its fingerprints were already all over the legislation that ended up being signed by Gov. Jerry Brown later in the day.

 

Now the rest of the country needs to be on the alert for similar soda industry moves since what happens in California often goes national. Just as the tobacco industry used state legislation to preempt local efforts to control tobacco, the soda industry is about to roll out the same strategy to quash local soda taxes. 

Local control can pose a problem for industries that are used to buying influence at the state level. A Philip Morris executive once explained why Big Tobacco pushes bills like the one that was just adopted in California: “By introducing preemptive statewide legislation, we can shift the battle away from the community level back to the state legislature, where we are on stronger ground.” 

Big Soda, like the tobacco industry before it, knows that the public is turning against them, demanding accountability for the health harms sugary drinks cause. In California, four cities passed local soda taxes in the last four years. The beverage industry poured tens of millions of dollars trying to drown soda tax initiatives in California — and it’s been failing. 

Preliminary research shows that soda taxes are reducing consumption of unhealthy beverages and increasing consumption of water. Additionally, soda tax revenues are being invested in school gardens, after-school physical activity programs, and public education campaigns.

At the community level, the beverage industry is losing — the voices of young people like those from Stockton hold more sway. Their neighbors and family members listen when young activists remind them that soda and other sugary drinks are the No. 1 source of added sugar in the American diet and are driving an epidemic of type-II diabetes, heart and liver disease, and tooth decay. These communities know what it’s like when soda is more affordable and available than safe drinking water. 

With Sacramento preparing to vote on soda taxes this November, and the promise of more such challenges to come, the beverage industry was desperate to avoid another public referendum on their hazardous products, so they went behind closed doors to preempt local control. 

This is a familiar playbook for tobacco-control advocates like me. Here’s what soda tax advocates can do to keep the pressure on Big Soda: 

  • Keep building local coalitions and pushing for local policy wins. If the state law stops communities from passing soda taxes, then go after other high-impact local policies, such as restricting marketing, which disproportionately targets youth of color. 
  • Monitor bills in the state legislature to catch efforts to sneak preemption into budgets and other must-pass legislation, and be prepared to mobilize opposition on short notice. Organizations like Americans for Non-Smokers’ Rights and Grassroots Change show us how this can be done. 
  • Form networks of activists, policymakers, and organizations both large and small to advocate for repeal of preemption laws. Many states that had tobacco control preemption bills in place in the 1990s were eventually able to repeal them. We can do the same now by urging lawmakers to repeal this preemption statute ahead of schedule.  

The new law banning soda taxes in California is a setback, but we won’t give up on reigning in the soda industry and protecting community health. Just as advocates have saved lives and prevented suffering by exposing and countering Big Tobacco, we can do the same with soda. We can and must fight back.

Larry Cohen is the executive director of the nonprofit Prevention Institute. He was a leader in the California coalition that passed the nation’s first multi-city smoking ban.