Sugary Beverage Tax Campaign Launches in Multnomah County

A trio of billionaires are behind the campaign to add Oregon’s largest county to a list of communities from Seattle to Philadelphia to Chicago that have added steep taxes on soda pop and sugary drinks designed to reduce the consumption of these beverages, which are leading drivers of diabetes and obesity.

A coalition of public health officials and liberal Portland politicians will kick off a push for a 1.5-cent per ounce tax on sugary beverages with a rally on Saturday, marking the start of a petition drive to ask Multnomah County voters to raise the tax on the May 2018 ballot.

Rep. Rob Nosse and Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran will speak Saturday morning at the YWCA of Greater Portland on Belmont Avenue, along with several other community leaders.

Dubbed a “soda tax,” it  would also tax a number of non-carbonated beverages including sweetened teas and sugary juice-like drinks that have lots of added sugar but little actual fruit content.

These kinds of sugary beverages are among the leading drivers of obesity and Type II diabetes as well as the fuel for tooth caries in children.

The tax could also include sports drinks like Gatorade, but if the added sugar content of these beverages is kept under six grams per 8 ounces, or under 24 grams for a typical 32-ounce bottle, they could avoid the tax. It would not include diet soda pop, natural fruit juices or dairy products.

The campaign has heavy backing from Texas billionaires John and Laura Arnold, who made their fortune in the oil industry. Their organization, Action Now Initiative, has dropped $600,000 on the campaign in Multnomah County through the political action committee Coalition for Healthy Kids and Education. Fellow billionaire Michael Bloomberg, who failed in his effort to ban large sodas while he was mayor of New York, has chipped in $75,449.

Locally, the campaign is backed by the Oregon Public Health Association and the Oregon Diabetes Association, among others. “We have forward momentum, and we’re excited about the response we’re getting,” said Rose King, a spokeswoman for the coalition.

If passed, the price of a 2-liter bottle of pop now priced at $1.99 would go up about 50 percent to $3 to account for a $1.01 tax. A $1.08 tax on a six-pack of Coke would be close to the state tax on a pack of cigarettes in Oregon, $1.31.

But the tax would be 24 times higher than the state tax on beer, which is set at a penny a pint, or eight cents a gallon. The 1.5 cent tax on sugary beverages comes out to $1.92 a gallon.

Multnomah County would join several Bay Area communities and Seattle in enacting hefty taxes on sugary soft drinks, as well as Philadelphia and Chicago, where the new tax has been met with a public backlash against politicians who supported it. On Wednesday, the Cook County, Illinois, County Commission voted to begin the process to repeal its penny-per-ounce pop tax, less than a month after it took effect.

The regressive excise tax would come down hardest on people with modest incomes, but low-income children would also see the benefit of the tax -- not only in reduced consumption of sugar, but the proceeds of the tax will fund early childhood education, physical education in schools, as well as playground equipment and school gardens. These excise taxes cannot be charged to food stamps, which can be used to buy sugary beverages, including soda pop.

King said that studies have shown that 25 percent of low-income kids in Oregon do not attend preschool, leaving them further behind their more privileged peers. “[The funding] starts to address the achievement gaps in Multnomah County.” she said.

The campaign anticipates it will raise $28 million a year, money that will be spent entirely in Multnomah County to support these programs for children.

The Philadelphia soda tax enacted at the start of the year was supposed to raise $46.2 million through June 30, but fell 15 percent short, raising $39.3 million as consumers bought fewer of these beverages than expected or purchased them outside the city. Carbonated soft drink sales fell 55 percent inside Philadelphia, but rose 38 percent outside the city.

Reach Chris Gray at [email protected].

Correction: The Oregon Medical Association has not yet taken a position on the beverage tax.

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