Soda tax seen as revenue for local schools, health

Measure would be means to combat rampant obesity

April 21, 2011 

A proposed 1 cent per ounce soda tax in California would bring in millions a year in revenue to California counties.

Counties in the San Joaquin Valley, which have the highest obesity rates, would each see gains from the annual $1.7 billion the measure would collect.

Merced County alone would see an estimated $12.4 million every year.

The potential revenue from Assembly Bill 669 introduced by Assemblyman Bill Monning, D-Carmel, was detailed in a study released by the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, a nonpartisan statewide organization.

Representatives from the organization and the Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program held a news conference Wednesday in Fresno to discuss the findings.

The measure would begin to impose the tax on soda and other sugary drinks distributors on July 1, 2012, and it would create a Children Health Promotion Fund. Diet sodas wouldn't be taxed.

The money collected would help support schools, local youth programs and would help improve the childhood obesity epidemic, supporters said.

Harold Goldstein, executive director for the advocacy organization and one of the authors of the study, said the obesity crisis costs the state about $41 billion a year. "We are in the midst of this massive obesity epidemic," he said.

Goldstein said about 20 states are considering a soda tax to fund obesity prevention programs, including Texas, New York and Vermont.

As for the estimated money that would be collected in California, 85 percent, or $1.4 billion, would go to the local level, he said.

The amount that each county in the San Joaquin Valley would receive would range from $42.9 million for Fresno County to $21.5 million for Tulare County and $6.5 million for Kings County.

Of the $12.4 million Merced County would see, $7.7 million would go directly to classrooms, $2.7 million would support physical education and nutrition, while $2 million would fund youth sports and after-school programs, according to the study.

Claudia Corchado, program manager for Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program in Merced, said the revenue the county would receive would be beneficial in many ways — "especially now, when we are so strapped financially," she said. "Our city is cutting the police and fire departments. Now, more than ever, we need to think outside the box and support initiatives like AB 669."

If the measure became law, Corchado said, the money would especially help schools. "We all know that our schools could use all the help that we can give," she said. "Our schools should be the hub for creating a healthier environment for our students."

It could be hard, however, for the initiative to receive wide support and become law, Corchado said.

Goldstein said last year, a similar piece of legislation failed to pass. But that doesn't mean there's not a chance this year. "It took six years for the Legislature to take soda and junk food out of schools," he said. "As the general public and policymakers come to understand the role that sugary drinks play in childhood obesity, I hope that in time the state Legislature is going to pass a tax like this."

Genoveva Islas-Hooker, regional program coordinator for Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program in Fresno, said officials there have been working with public health departments in all eight San Joaquin Valley counties with obesity prevention efforts for the past five years. "We have really high rates of obesity in the Valley," she said. "This obesity epidemic is alarming."

In the city of Merced, 62 percent of 2- to 17-year-olds consume one can of soda or more every day, Corchado said. Some 34 percent of Merced County residents are obese, according to a 2010 UCLA study.

The soda tax would be "a great benefit in addressing the obesity epidemic," Islas-Hooker said.

Goldstein said the tax could be implemented at the local level if it failed to become a statewide law.

Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209) 388-6507 or yamaro@mercedsun-star.com.

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