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Proposed Soda Tax Advances in Senate

Bill: Proceeds would be used for programs to fight childhood obesity and to wean schools from vending machine revenue now used to fund student activities.

April 11, 2002|JULIE TAMAKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — A bill to tax soda to fight childhood obesity cleared a Senate committee Wednesday after a debate over whether soft drink sales should be banned from California campuses.

Sen. Deborah Ortiz (D-Sacramento) wants to tax sodas and other sweetened drinks, including certain iced tea and cranberry juice beverages, at a rate of about 2 cents per 12-ounce serving and use the revenue to combat rising cases of obesity, diabetes and osteoporosis among children.

Diet sodas and beverages that contain more than 50% natural fruit juice would be exempted.

The excise tax, which would be imposed on beverage distributors but would probably be passed on to consumers, would raise about $340 million a year, according to projections. Some of the revenue would be devoted to programs aimed at preventing childhood obesity, educating kids about their teeth and paying dental bills. But most of the money would be used to help get schools out of the business of selling soda and junk food, which they now depend on to fund activities.

"One-third of California children are overweight or obese," Ortiz told members of the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services, which she chairs. "Young people today are consuming more soda than water or milk."

The committee approved Ortiz's "California Soda Tax Act" 7 to 3 on a party-line vote, with Democrats prevailing over Republicans despite two abstentions by Democrats.

More than a dozen health-care advocates, county officials and school administrators testified in support of the measure, including Los Angeles Board of Education President Caprice Young. She said the soda tax would allow districts like hers to end what she described as the "soda sports gotcha."

Young said schools receive about $1,000 a year from each soda machine on campus to pay for clubs and programs that keep kids active.

"It's a tough choice," Young said. "Obviously, nobody likes to raise taxes, but this is going to be a win for our kids and win for all of us."

Young's contention, however, drew a sharp response from Sen. Jim Battin (R-La Quinta), who repeatedly asked Young why the Los Angeles school system has not then removed soda machines from campuses. He also took issue with the state making money through a tax hike on a product portrayed as unhealthy for children.

"I think it's immoral for the government to profit from harming someone," he said.

Members of California's business, restaurant and soda industries testified Wednesday that the bill would result in a triple tax on soda, because the state already levies a sales tax and a redemption fee on them.

Jot Condie, a lobbyist for the California Restaurant Assn., said the tax could hurt the state's restaurant business by forcing owners to raise prices or absorb the higher cost charged by beverage distributors.

"It's a serious, scary decision a restaurateur faces," he said.

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