(EDITOR’S NOTE May 20, 2021 4 p.m. — This story has been updated to reflect that the bill would place a 1.5-cent-per-ounce tax on sodas.)
D.C. residents weighed in on the new proposed soda tax during the bill’s first public hearing Wednesday.
The bill drew a lot of attention from supporters of the bill and opponents, as 96 people joined the D.C. Council’s Committee on Human Services to voice their opinion about the Nutrition Equity Amendment Act of 2021.
The bill, sponsored by Council member Brianne Nadeau, would place a 1.5-cent-per-ounce excise tax any on sugary drinks, such as sodas, energy drinks and sports drinks.
Dozens of small business owners spoke during the hearing, which lasted about seven hours.
“This bill will hurt small business when they are struggling to survive,” said Kirk McCauley, representing several convenience stores opposed the legislation. “Every time we increase tax on a product that can be purchased across the river or across the street, we send customers away.”
Supporters of the Nutrition Equity Act claim that it will discourage residents from buying sugary drinks and encourage them to make healthier options, especially in low-income neighborhoods in Northeast and Southeast, where obesity and diabetes are diagnosed at high rates.
Dr. Yolandra Hancock, a pediatrician in D.C., is one of the strongest advocates for the bill. She said that sugary drinks and sodas contribute greatly to adult and child obesity and increase their likelihood for severe health problems.
“According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 80% of people who have been hospitalized or died from COVID-19 have been overweight or obese. And the majority of those in D.C. are Black or brown. Bold steps must be taken. This legislation is certainly one of them,” Hancock said.
More speakers tied the bill to racial equity and socioeconomics, including Rev. William Lamar IV, of Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church.
“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,” Lamar said.
Some opponents pointed to studies of other municipalities that instituted similar measures.
“Philadelphia’s soda tax, a paper was released by the Stanford Business School found that while demand in the taxed area fell 46%, half of that affect was wiped out by cross-border shopping,” said Guy Bentley, the director of Consumer Freedom Research with the Reason Foundation.
Reason Foundation is an organization that promotes libertarian principles.
“What the Stanford paper found was that the soda consumption fell most amongst the richest households who were also the least likely to be obese and have diabetes,” Bentley said.
Rolled in the bill is a stipulation that all of the District’s homeless shelters would be required to provide more nutritious meals that are consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The revenue produced by the new soda tax would directly fund this new initiative.
The tax will also establish grants to support nutrition education, cooking lessons and gardens at family shelters and transitional housing.
In 2019, a similar bill was introduced to the D.C. council.