Soda pop, energy drinks and even some juice mixes will get more expensive in Multnomah County if voters approve a new tax proposal bound for the November ballot.
As first reported Jan. 9 at wweek.com, the 1-cent-per-ounce tax on "sugar-added" beverages is being proposed by Gregg Coodley, a Portland doctor who was active in Multnomah County's recent effort to ban bisphenol A from sippy cups.
The measure needs 16,851 valid voter signatures to make it on the ballot. Campaign manager Rich Rogers says he's retained a signature-gathering firm, Democracy Resources, to help, at an estimated cost of $30,000.*
Coodley expects the tax to raise $35 million. About half will go to after-school and physical education programs for children in the county's school districts. The rest will fund jobs programs. Multnomah County would administer all the money raised and set up a "jobs fund" to pay for the unemployment programs, according to draft language for the measure.
Yet county leaders are not publicly supporting the measure. "This just isn't a campaign we're involved in, and we're not taking a position," county spokeswoman Julie Sullivan says. "We've got a lot of things going on, and this isn't one of them."
Coodley says county officials have told him they won't support the measure because they're worried about backlash from soft-drink companies.
But the tax proposal dovetails with two longstanding efforts by county commissioners. One is to find new ways to boost the county's budget. In 2010, for instance, the county supported a state Senate bill that would have allowed counties to raise cigarette taxes independently to increase revenue.
Second, this ballot measure echoes recent county efforts to steer Portlanders toward healthier eating habits (see "Making Food Deserts Bloom," WW, Jan. 4, 2012). Since March 2010, the county has spent about $150,000 of a larger federal grant on a media campaign that includes television commercials discouraging kids from drinking sugary beverages.
Coodley says reducing kids' soda intake will have a big impact. Studies have shown calories from soda can lead to childhood obesity and Type 2 diabetes, although research on the efficacy of placing taxes on such drinks is not as conclusive.
It's also hard to foresee how much of the tax will be passed on to consumers. Retailers would be liable for any tax not paid by distributors, under penalty of misdemeanor.
Rodgers says it makes sense to tax sweetened drinks to help pay for programs that combat their effects. "We're not anti-soda. It's not intended to be punitive," he says.