Soda Tax on the Menu for Oregon Legislature

Advocates likely face intense lobbying pressure from the soda industry if the bill even gets a chance
January 19, 2011 – Oregon public health advocates want the legislature to consider a new tax on soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages that would generate around $100 million annually.
 
Because Oregon doesn’t have a sales tax, the proposal would take shape as an excise tax on distributors equal to a half-cent per liquid ounce of sugar-sweetened drinks, not including diet sodas, according to a draft of House Bill 2264 sponsored by Rep. Mitch Greenlick (D-Portland).
 
The money would go toward obesity prevention programs such as adding physical education funding to public schools, farm to school programs and expanding food assistance vouchers under the federal WIC program.
 
“Those voucher programs currently don’t serve as many people as qualify because of a lack of funding,” said Marah Hall, campaign manager for Upstream Public Health, a non-profit health advocacy organization leading a coalition of groups in favor of the tax.
 
But advocates are under no illusions that passing any tax during a recession, and with a heavily divided legislature, will be easy. Last year, the American Beverage Association spent $16.5 million for a ballot measure that successfully defeated a tax on soda and candy passed by the legislature.
 
“While it definitely makes us understand it’s a David-and-Goliath campaign, it still speaks volumes about how nervous they are because if they thought they could handily win it they would have never put that much money into it,” Hall said.
 
Prospects in Oregon may be especially tough given co-speaker of the House, Rep. Bruce Hanna (R-Roseburg), is a majority stockholder and president of the Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Roseburg. Neither Hanna nor an aide in his office responded to a request for comment.
 
“This may not be his favorite bill of the session,” Hall said. “What’s really important for us is to get the dialogue started and to start moving in that direction. This year will be challenging, but we’ll get there.”
 
With the proposed bill this session, Oregon joins a handful of other states and cities over the past year where taxes on sugary soft drinks were attempted. Similar proposals in Mississippi, New Mexico, New York and Philadelphia failed in the end. In Washington D.C., the city council removed a sales tax exemption for carbonated soft drinks.
 
Adding to the uphill battle for supporters of a soda tax nationally, grant funding previously available through Save the Children has dried up. Last month the New York Times reported that the non-profit group said it would no longer fund efforts for soda taxes after receiving large grants from Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, although all parties denied there was any connection.
 
In the 2009 Oregon legislative session, Upstream Public Health along with other health advocates were successful in pushing for a fast-food menu-labeling bill that’s currently on the law books.

 

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