WASHINGTON - Could D.C. become the next big city to put an extra tax on soda, energy drinks, and sports drinks? Lawmakers are considering it. They say due to growing health concerns highlighted by the coronavirus pandemic, but does such a tax make a difference and where does the money go?
Council member Brianne Nadeau has introduced the Nutrition Equity Bill to combat health disparities in the district.
Specifically, in Black and brown communities and low-income neighborhoods in Northeast and Southeast where experts say obesity and diabetes are diagnosed at high rates.
The money raised by the proposed 1.5 cent per ounce excise tax on sugary drinks would fund an initiative to help homeless shelters in the district provide healthier meals.
Many D.C. residents we spoke to believe the money can be found in another way.
"It’s for a good cause helping people in need, but people should be able to make their own choices on what they want to eat and drink and not be taxed on it," said Charles Papadopoulos, a D.C. Resident.
"I feel like DC can find the money in other places than like raising prices on sugary stuff and it is kind of disproportionate because I do know like if you’re truthful – a lot of black people rely on sugary drinks – it’s cheaper so they buy sugary drinks so they’re going to be unfortunate for people of color and stuff. I don’t think it’s fair at all," said D.C. resident Babe Abedona.
Some businesses share the same sentiment. The owner of K&B sodas said the company is the only producer of soda in the DC area and this would be detrimental for his business.
"It really is prohibitive to small companies like myself and it’s an extra burden to be able to operate and be a viable contributor to community," said Andrew Shapiro, Owner, K&B Sodas.
On May 19th, a public hearing that lasted over 7 hours sparked intense conversations from both supporters and opponents.
Dr. Yolanda Hanckock, a local pediatrician, is pushing for this proposal to go through as she sees firsthand how sugary drinks and sodas contribute to adult and child obesity and increases the likelihood of serious health problems.
"According to the CDC, nearly 80% of people who have been hospitalized or died from COVID-19 have been overweight or obese. And the majority of those getting sick or dying in DC are Black or brown. Bold steps must be taken. This legislation is certainly one of them."
Reverend Bill Lamar, Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, spoke to the racial equity and economics of the proposal.
"The power of the beverage industry, they fund scholarships, they support black institutions, and by and large, they buy silence while they sell products that literally destroy lives," said Lamar.
Abedona believes it is outrageous and contributes to a larger problem.
"It’s kind of crazy. I always thought D.C. was like a price gauger because they do speed tickets and all that – so the fact they’re trying to charge for drinks is ridiculous honestly."
Overall, thoughts on the proposal are split 50/50 with people both for and against it. That is why D.C. leaders said this proposal has a long way to go before anything is final.
Where else is this happening? Well, Rhode Island legislators are looking at implementing a similar tax. Berkeley, California was the first spot to make it happen and following that includes Seattle, Washington and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. What happened there is while the consumption of sugary drinks decreased, people started going outside the city for those items. New York City tried and failed to pass a tax on sugary drinks.
In 2019, D.C. Council tried passing a similar bill.