Maddie worked as a travel guide in Argentina and a teacher at several educational nonprofits in San Francisco before joining Mother Jones. She’s also written for Outside, the Bay Citizen, and the Rumpus. She manages Mother Jones' Ben Bagdikian Fellowship Program.
Measures in Richmond and El Monte, California that would have taxed sugar-sweetened beverages at a penny-per-ounce rate failed to pass in either city yesterday. In Richmond, 67 percent of voters said no to Measure N, striking down an attempt by councilmembers such as Jeff Ritterman, the main champion of the tax, to raise funds in hopes of curbing high rates of childhood obesity in the area.
Measure N recieved opposition from some Richmond councilmembers, such as Nat Bates, who told the Contra Costa Times that the tax was an overreach. Fierce campaign spending may have also played a role in quashing passage of the tax; as I reported yesterday, soda and food industry groups, such as the American Beverage Association, poured $2.5 million to defeat the campaign, outspending supporters at a ratio of 35 to 1. That $2.5 million on campaign spending against the tax is almost as much as the $3 million Ritterman was hoping could be raised by the measure to be put towards addressing some of the city's health issues. The tax fared even worse in El Monte, where only 23 percent of voters favored the tax. There, the soda industry spent $1.3 million to counter the measure.
Though disappointed that the initiatives will have to wait for another election, Ritterman says just getting the measures on the ballot doesn't have much of a downside for cities. "If you win, you get millions of dollars to address childhood obesity," he told me. But either way, "you get a very spirited conversation about the health impacts of sugar-sweetened beverages that you didn't have before." Ritterman says he has seen less soda consumed at public events around the city because of the debate the tax raised, and thinks young people's soda drinking habits may have been changed by the coversations the proposed initiative sparked.
Ritterman says he believes that a statewide or nationwide soda tax would be more effective than a local one. With the Obamas' emphasis on healthy eating, he's holding out hope for national movement towards taxing soda. In the meantime, he plans to encourage 14 California cities to propose soda taxes in 2014. He also hopes people will start paying more attention to the science behind the overconsumption of sugar: in this campaign, "it was really treated as a political issue by people not taking on the science."
In the meantime, though people in Richmond and El Monte won't pay a bit more to consume sugar-sweetened drinks, the health costs of dealing with high diabetes and heart disease rates will continue to add up. Says Ritterman: "We're actually paying more money by not having the tax, but people weren't aware of that."
Should sugary drinks be taxed to discourage people from overconsuming them? That's the question California voters in Richmond and El Monte are asking as they head to the polls today to decide on what could become the first penny-per-ounce taxes imposed on sugary beverages by cities in the US.
As I reported in June, some economists and public health researchers think that soda has enough price elasticity that its consumption rates would be shaken up by such measures. And growing research about diabetes and other health problems associated with the overconsumption of sugar—as discussed in the recent Mother Jones exposé "Big Sugar's Sweet Little Lies," for instance—has convinced some it may be time for the government to help regulate its consumption.
Just in time for today's election, a new study presented at a conference last week underscored the potentially positive role such excise taxes could play in problems plaguing minorities and low income communities. When researchers from the University of California—San Francisco and other universities projected the impact of a 20 percent drop in consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) in California, they found that incidence of diabetes and heart disease would drop up to 5.6 percent and 1.2 percent, respectively.
But more importantly, the researchers found, incidence would decrease more significantly for certain groups who struggle with these issues the most: Mexican Americans, African Americans, and poor people. For these groups, a soda tax could decrease diabetes incidence by around 8 percent, and heart disease by around 2 percent. Total savings associated with avoiding these health issues in California? As much as $1 billion for diabetes, and an extra $130 million for heart disease.
Richmond's councilman Jeff Ritterman, who proposed the city's soda tax, or "Measure N," called these research findings "the smoking gun" in an email in early November, especially considering two-thirds of the city is black or Latino, and 32 percent of school kids are obese. The city also suffers from an 11 percent unemployment rate and high rates of poverty. As California Watch reported, the lead researcher of the study thinks the findings are significant because they show that some groups that in general drink more soda and are at a higher risk of diabetes may also benefit most from a tax on SSBs.
The taxes are by no means universally popular. Many in the Richmond area, including some black and Latino leaders, feel they were left out of the soda tax discussion and worry that a tax could slow sales at local small businesses. As the debate heated up over the summer and fall, these opponents were encouraged by the likes of, who else? Big Soda.
It's striking to realize that such a basic commodity—a substance we spoon into our coffee every day and use in almost everything we bake—may play a causative role in some of our deadliest diseases. Ever since the mid-1900s, when cereal makers realized that sugar boosts sales, America's food and beverage industries have been sweetening up their products. To buoy sugar's popularity circa World War II, producers launched what would become the Sugar Association Inc. (SAI), which later turned its attention to undermining research that suggests that it's more than cavities we need to worry about. As Gary Taubes and Cristin Kearns Couzens report in "Big Sugar's Sweet Little Lies," the SAI heavily funded sugar-friendly studies, ran misleading ads, and concocted a multiprong PR campaign to convince people that sugar was harmless and could even help us stay thin. Below are highlights from Big Sugar's longstanding attempt to win America's heart—and gut. (Be patient, as the timeline may take a few seconds to load.)
The scene preceeding The Lumineers' early afternoon set at San Francisco's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival was just about as competitive as that portrayed in local news coverage of shoppers streaming into Walmart on Black Friday. Attendants barked at twenty-somethings ducking ropes in pursuit of a view, the grass section in front of the stage held about one fan per square foot, and the aisle up through the middle of the meadow transformed into a slow-moving mosh pit. It wasn't even 3 p.m. I slinked through the crowd and miraculously landed an edge of someone's tarp.
Jeremiah Fraites, the Denver-based folk band's drummer, remembers the afternoon in much the same way: "When we actually took the stage, every single vantage point, every spot where a human being could be, there was one—surrounding us." The entire Eucalyptus-shaded hill behind the stage was covered with humanity, as were the bushes flanking the sides of the small outdoor arena. I spotted two shirtless dudes draped over tree branches, ready to soak it in. "It made us feel pretty damn good about that being our first time at Hardly Strictly," Fraites told me a few days after the performance.
Some especially persistent voters rifle through Federal Election Commission filings in their spare time, poring over the latest data dumps and tracking outside money for insight into who's influencing the vote. Luckily for those of us with less time (or patience), tech-savvy politicos have figured out ways to filter through all that info and send some of the juicier bits straight to our favorite gadgets. Now you can peel back the facade of the mysterious backer of that one issues ad or view a whole compilation of polls at a moment's notice. These six apps can make it more enticing, not to mention a lot faster, to tap into what's going on behind the scenes of the horse race.
The Political Shazam
Nearly half of the more than $500 million in political ads out as of August 2012 were funded by outside groups—committees with ambiguous sounding names like Priorities USA Action or Americans for Prosperity. Ad Hawk, from Sunlight Labs, essentially runs a background check on the constant stream of political TV and radio ads. You just let the app listen to any ad as it plays, and in less than 30 seconds it will identify the group behind the ad and its bankrollers, and tell you how much of its cash has gone to supporting (or trashing) Democrats or Republicans. Ad Hawk is especially useful for learning more about the notoriously elusive super-PACs and 501(c)s—although when I asked Sunlight Labs' Director Tom Lee to name a notable recent ad, he pointed to Harold the Cat's gag run for a Virginia Senate seat. (Free, available for iOS and Android.)