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Soda Taxes: Building a National Movement (and Fighting Preemption) One Victory at a Time

October 13, 2019

It’s very easy to be cynical about politics. I can be cynical as well. But seeing policies being guided by a grassroots movement, with people who wanted to make this happen at all levels of power in the city, was inspiring.

Sara Soka, former Campaign Manager, Berkeley vs. Big Soda

Since the first successful soda tax was passed in 2014 – in Berkeley, California – many other communities have followed suit and passed or considered their own soda taxes. In 2016, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Boulder, Colorado; Cook County, Illinois; and Oakland, San Francisco and Albany, California all adopted local taxes, with Seattle joining the movement in June of 2017.

Along with the eight soda taxes that have already been adopted, five soda taxes have been introduced or proposed statewide in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and West Virginia; and locally in Multnomah County, Oregon and Santa Fe, New Mexico (a ballot measure which was defeated).  See this map of the soda tax movement from Healthy Food America.

Related Content: Lessons from Two Successful Soda Tax Movements

Building an Effective Movement

The national soda tax movement is a model for effective grassroots movement building. As recent studies provide growing evidence that local taxes on sugary beverages reduce consumption and promote healthy people and communities, the national soda tax movement continues to grow. The success of the soda tax movement also adds further evidence supporting Grassroots Change’s model for building and sustaining effective movements across public health, safety, and social justice issues.

The democratic process lets the people be heard. This was initially brought forward as a citizens’ petition so it wasn’t up to the City Council to decide; it was up to them to put it on the ballot and let voters decide. The Council is elected to represent the people of Boulder, and this was an initiative that came from the people to improve the lives of children in Boulder.

– Jorge De Santiago, AMISTAD & Healthy Boulder Kids’ Campaign

Evidence of the success of local soda taxes is growing quickly. When sugar sweetened beverages are taxed, people consume less, and the revenue from a local tax is typically used for civic good, including public health, economic development, and education.

There are three related reasons for the success of the soda tax movement. First, grassroots advocates become passionate and motivated about promoting thoughtful soda tax measures, especially at the local level, because the revenues stay in the community and can noticeably and quickly promote food justice and healthy communities. Ultimately, taxes on sugary beverages can also reduce rates of soda-related diseases such as diabetes.

Second, local soda tax movements have a powerful educational impact in alerting families and individuals about the health risks of consuming sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) and also help to promote alternative beverage options. Finally, as in the case of the nonsmokers’ rights movement 20 years ago, the media attention and community conversations that accompany these local public health movements can change the culture surrounding soda consumption, and ultimately propel positive and enduring social change.

Sara Soka, the former Campaign Manager for the Berkeley Soda Tax Campaign, identifies some of the most important components of a successful campaign as “a) authentic community involvement at all stages of the campaign – from the early stages of ordinance design and decisions about revenue allocation, during the campaign itself, and… implementation, b) having a compelling, inclusive narrative about the local need for this policy, and c) being savvy about the political landscape. ”

Communities who are most affected by these issues need to get organized. If a government is leading the effort, you need to work together but also make them accountable. To say “We’re here, count us in,” not just watch from the fence. Be engaged, be proactive. Be the watchdogs and make sure the revenue is invested in equity, make sure your communities will see real benefit and changes. The funds must be for the community, not just to fill a budget.

– Jorge De Santiago

Another unique aspect of the revenue generated from local soda taxes is that local voters or elected officials have typically dedicated soda tax revenues to fund programs and projects that directly improve the health of their communities. Such programs include sustained funding for school gardening and nutrition programs, universal pre-school, and grants for programs serving the families, children and young people most impacted by the overconsumption of sugary beverages. Thus, soda taxes are working to improve individuals’ health while benefitting entire communities.

However, as the soda tax movement grows, so does the threat of preemption. Preemption is a legislative tactic used by opponents of local control and public health innovation by which higher levels of government undermine stronger laws at the local or state level. Preemption is usually promoted by an industry opposed to health or safety protections.

Preemption Threat

As with other successful grassroots movements, local soda taxes face the threat of state preemption promoted by the soda industry. Nine states preempt some or all local food and nutrition policies. In an article on soda taxes in Governing magazine, an American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) representative is quoted supporting state preemption. ALEC is a pro-industry “think tank” that promotes model state preemption legislation on a number of topics.

According to Sara Soka, “local and state level advocates need to expect state lawmakers, influenced by the beverage association, ALEC, and their allies, to slip preemption into state budgets and other bills at a moment’s notice, and be prepared to activate to counter it.” As soda taxes spread at the local and state levels, advocates must track preemption threats and prepare to counter preemption.

To learn more about the strategies for running a successful soda tax campaign, take a look at our case study, which draws lessons from both the Berkeley and Boulder campaigns.