Sweet Results from Bay Area Elections on Soda Taxes

The Praxis Project congratulates Albany, Oakland, San Francisco and Boulder (And Cook County, Illinois) on incredible wins for health justice during this past election.  For Praxis, these wins are a beacon for a darkness that may soon come to the broader fight for health justice in our most vulnerable communities across the United States as the impacts on health justice policy from our most recent national election results become clear.

Pro-soda tax advocates are often bewildered about why communities of color don’t support these initiatives right away—wondering why our voters have to be convinced that paying more for sugary drinks is in our best interest.  The results from the November 8th election partly showed why we may be slow.  Our communities have many other things that feel more pressing.  We worry today about our families remaining intact, we worry about safety in our community, we worry about whether we can pay this month’s rent, we worry about the quality of the water we drink, we worry about how much it costs to eat healthily, we worry that we aren’t exercising because we either have no accessible or safe parks in our neighborhoods.

Given this context, you might start to see why it takes us a while to come around on the soda taxes.  Especially when the beverage industry is bombarding us with their targeted advertising that seeks to conflate their products with our culture, our daily lives, our way of being.

Further confusing the issue is that our own national civil rights organizations remain silent on the issue of sugary drink taxes because they are conflicted and compromised by donations they receive from the beverage industry and/or because of beverage industry participation on their advisory and governance boards.  We are fortunate that the local chapters can sometimes set the future agenda for their nationals.

We have found a way to beat the Beverage Industry that has worked in the Bay Area.  Two years ago, the strategies we employed in Berkeley, the first successful local tax passed in the US, went against all advice we had been receiving from public health experts who had tried to pass 31 a local taxes across the US.  It turns out that “Public Health Perfect” can sometimes be the enemy of “Political Good.”  Reading the political winds, we knew we had to make political concessions in order to advance public health.  The choices:  1 cent vs 2 cents; distributor tax vs retail tax, general tax vs specific tax—the last one would determine whether we needed to win by 50% +1 or by 2/3rds per California tax law (Prop 13).  That these politically expedient concessions went against national health organizations’ policy bottom lines further muddied our efforts in Berkeley as the support from the national public health organizations was initially muted.

Another epiphany we had as we crafted our messaging for our most sensitive communities was to lead with the fact that revenues were intended for those communities that were being hardest hit by the diseases brought on by the overconsumption of SSBs.  As our campaigns continued to lift up health disparities in our most vulnerable communities, we knew that we had an ethical obligation to make sure that the investments would go back to these communities, and not for just education, but also for changing the environment so that the healthy beverage choice was the easy choice.  There’s nothing worse than being told something is unhealthy and then not having the healthy options easily available.

We at Praxis applaud the very hard work it took to pass the SSB taxes in San Francisco, Oakland, Albany, and Boulder.  We also send much love and energy to get through the next crucial steps of implementation.  Just like with the campaign, you will receive a lot of advice.  Be judicious and politically expedient.  The process of recruiting and seating your expert panels and commissions, the process of developing guidance on how to identify and make investments, the process of evaluating the investments to make sure that you meet the original intent and keep the promises you made to the vulnerable communities sometimes feels just as hard as the campaign itself.

There is also the added burden that the world is watching how you do. So is the beverage industry—Always keep in mind that your performance will impact those that come after you.  No pressure!

Congratulations and welcome to the Club!

Xavier Morales, Ph.D., MRP
Executive Director
The Praxis Project