D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), who has vowed to pay for her “Healthy Schools” legislation one way or another, has asked colleagues to approve a tax on soda sales in the District of Columbia as a means of raising the estimated $6.5 million annual cost of the omnibus bill aimed at improving school nutrition and combating the city’s high childhood obesity rate.
In her letter to other members of the Council, Cheh does not specify a tax rate for sodas, but quotes the director of the U.S. Center for Disease Control as saying that a tax of 1 cent per ounce on soft drinks–or approximately 10 percent–would be the “single most effective measure to reverse the obesity epidemic.”
Cheh notes that since the repeal of a city tax on snack foods in 2001, there is no tax in the District on sodas except those purchased from vending machines. Meanwhile, Maryland levies a 6 percent sales tax on soda, while Virginia charges 1.5 percent. plus a state excise tax. Revenue from Cheh’s proposed soda tax would be directed into a special “Healthy Schools” fund, to be used only for purposes outlined in the bill.
In addition to providing additional funds for school breakfasts and lunches, the “Healthy Schools” bill would also help fund the purchase of local produce for school meals and establish grants for school gardens. While the legislation has won widespread support on the Council and among healthy food advocates, it has been dogged by questions of how Cheh would finance the plan when the city is in financial pain.
Special soda taxes have been proposed in other cities–notably New York–as a means of attacking the obesity problem. But this is the first time the issue has been raised seriously here. The “Healthy Schools” legislation, which sailed through committee and an initial Council vote recently, is scheduled to come up for a second and final vote on May 5.
An aide to Cheh last night said Cheh proposes to attach the soda tax to the city’s proposed general budget legislation, scheduled for a vote May 25, and expects that it will spark a fierce reaction from the food and beverage industries.
The proposed soda tax could also ingnite protests from the city’s black and low-income residents. Cheh says in her letter that such a tax most likely will fall heaviest on the District’s poor, who are also at greatest risk for being overweight or obese. “This means that children in the District who are at the greatest risk for childhood obesity are the most likely to decrease their consumption of sugary beverages as a result of a soda tax.”