Could Proposed Boulder Tax on Sugary Drinks Be Coming to Your City?

In April, we told you about a proposal to place a tax on sugary drinks in Boulder.

Supporters of the concept subsequently collected enough signatures to place what is now known as 2H on the Boulder ballot — and Angelique Espinoza, campaign manager for Healthy Boulder Kids, the organization pushing the plan, thinks the concept has legs.

"Our coalition is concerned with Boulder, and it's not our intention to try and export it," Espinoza says. "But certainly, we hope that the education and information that we're able to get out through our campaign will go beyond our community — and if people in other communities feel it's right for them, perhaps they'll bring it to their own town."

As we've reported, the excise tax of two cents per ounce on "drinks with added sugar, and sweeteners used to produce such drinks" (with the exception of sweeteners sold separately to consumers, milk products, baby formula, alcohol and drinks taken for medical reasons) is expected to raise $3.8 million, with the proceeds earmarked "toward providing access to healthy foods and activities and providing education about nutrition and exercise, particularly in low-income communities," Espinoza points out.

She adds that the tax will be imposed on distributors, not consumers: "The distributor can choose how much of the tax to pass along to the retailer, and the retailer can choose to pass along that tax to the community. And we've seen that a large portion of that tax will be passed along to the consumer."

The example cited by Espinoza is related to Berkeley, California, which approved a similar measure in 2015. This past August, a study of the tax's impact there showed that the higher cost reduced consumption of such drinks by approximately 20 percent in some neighborhoods — "particularly low-income communities, which are the ones most impacted by the health disparities of consumption related to sugary drinks," she says.

At the same time, Espinoza stresses that the backers of the Berkeley tax aren't pulling the strings in Boulder. "The genesis of this proposal is really a local, grassroots effort from folks who are interested in local food and public health: some moms, doctors, nutritionists, people who live and work in Boulder who saw this as an issue and decided they really wanted to bring it forward in our community."

Likewise, Espinoza makes it clear that Boulder isn't prohibiting such beverages. "As Westerners, we don't like being told what to do — and I'm a Westerner, too," she notes. "So this isn't a ban. We're just collecting a couple of pennies per ounce to put toward mitigating the public-health impacts that sugary drinks have been making on our community."

Why focus on sugary drinks when there are plenty of other unhealthy foods out there? To that question, Espinoza responds, "Soda, Gatorade, anything with a lot of added sugars, are the number-one source of added sugars in the American diet, and the correlation between them and the negative health impacts of our growing epidemic of obesity, diabetes and heart disease are clear. Doughnuts aren't good for you, but one twelve-ounce soda is the equivalent of three doughnuts — and we don't see the doughnut industry advertising disproportionately to youth with sports figures and animated polar bears. And we also don't see the proportion of added calories being as great coming from doughnuts as comes from sugary drinks. A twenty-ounce bottle of soda is the equivalent of 22 packets of sugar, and liquid sugar makes an even greater impact on your body. It doesn't make you full, so you're likely to consume even more calories in the same setting — whereas if you consume three doughnuts, you're unlikely to then consume a cheeseburger and fries."

Unsurprisingly, the Colorado Beverage Association is against the proposal. Earlier this year, the organization's executive director, Christopher Howes, shared the following statement:
The Colorado Beverage Association believes that beverage taxes are misguided and ineffective policies that have no meaningful impact on public health. Many cities across the country, including Telluride in 2013, have rejected similar taxes. And in a city continually ranked as the most fit in Colorado, this tax proposal will only hurt small businesspeople and those who rely, in part, on beverage sales for their livelihoods.
Espinoza bristles at these assertions.

"There have been efforts to paint this issue as pitting business against health," she says, "and I think that's a tremendously unfair characterization." In addition to support from organizations such as Healthier Colorado and the American Heart Association, she goes on, "we have many small businesses that are part of our coalition, including Alfalfa's Market, as well as the Latino Chamber of Commerce of Boulder County and many restaurants, too. This is really our whole community coming together to make sure that all Boulder kids have opportunities to live healthy lives."

And if Boulder voters sign on, who knows where the measure could go next.