Tax Proposal on Unhealthy Food

By Don MacGillivray

Tax Reform 

Initiative Petition 37 will be on the November ballot. It is a referendum to eliminate any and all future taxation of the groceries in Oregon.

To most it may seem to be the right thing to do though it will protect business interests and defeat opponents that want to help disadvantaged citizens, while generating funding needed by the government to address their difficulties.

Many foods are luxuries and when people eat in excess, it is often detrimental to their health. Sugar, salt, and fat are consistently identified as problematic when overly consumed.

In appropriate amounts, these products are necessary for good health, but in excess they can be the cause of many of our most prevalent diseases.

In many places, groceries are exempted from universal sales taxes because food is considered a consumer staple that must remain affordable to everyone, particularly to those with fixed incomes.

Groceries have never been taxed in Oregon and the food industry wants to keep it that way.

Initiative petition 37 was developed by those opposed to the recent effort in 2017 to tax soda pop and measure 97 in 2016 that would have created a gross receipts tax on major retailers and large corporations.

With a well-funded campaign the supporters of measure 37 have collected 180,000 petition signatures, making it certain to meet the required 118,000 signatures needed to quality for the November general election.

The major backer is the Northwest Grocery Association. Albertson’s, which is owned by Safeway, Kroger which owns Fred Meyer, and Costco have contributed $1.2 million to the initiative.

Reports show the campaign has spent more than $2 million to gather the above signatures and more will be needed for their media campaign this fall.

Last fall after the City Council of the nearby Oregon community of St. Helens voted down a proposed tax on sweetened beverages, the residents immediately organized an initiative petition to prevent any future taxation of groceries in their city.

With the help of the Northwest Grocery Association, they quickly collected 1,900 signatures which was 400 more than was needed to qualify for the May 2018 ballot.

The measure passed with 2,446 votes in favor to 299 votes against to the delight of its many backers. This has made St. Helens, Oregon the poster child for the statewide initiative 37 that will likely end the taxation of foodstuffs in the entire state.

Last year there was a Multnomah County petition to put a tax soda pop on the May primary ballot. It ended in November after collecting 28,000 signatures, more than the 10,000 required to put it on the May 2018 ballot.

The backers chose to delay it until the November 2018 general election because of the larger turnout even though they would need to redo the signature gathering for the petition.

The soda sales tax would have added 18 cents to the price of each twelve-ounce bottle of soda pop and would have raised $28 million per year in Multnomah County.

“The Coalition for Healthy Kids and Education” organized, supported, and promoted the soda tax initiative. The money raised from the tax was to be used for the support of preschool for low-income children and other programs to support the health and development of children. Early education gives these disadvantaged kids a head-start toward success in school and in later life.

It was opposed by a coalition of 650 small business owners funded by the American Beverage Association to protect their profits and those of Walmart, Albertsons, Costco, Fred Meyer, and other corporate retail stores.

They have put $2 million into this initiative over the last year and ”Big Soda” was expected to pump many more millions into a campaign to defeat this minor tax.

Eating too much of the wrong foods can shorten life and cause serious illness. It is with these facts in mind that there has been an effort all over the country to reduce sugar consumption.

Experts have identified sugar as the most egregious offender in the American diet. People with low incomes often have poor diets because they lack the resources or the time to eat healthfully.

In this country and around the world, research has shown that taxes on sugar consumption has improved health, saved lives, reduced medical expenses, and increased worker productivity by significant amounts.

The soda tax would not be popular with low-income people and minorities, but they would receive the greatest benefits from a reduction in their consumption of sugar.

One year ago in Seattle, the city council voted 7-1 to institute a tax on unhealthful beverages like sugary soda pop and became the 8th American city to do so. Berkeley-Oakland, Philadelphia, and Boulder also have taxes on sugar. Chicago revoked their tax after the public rebelled.

Sugary drinks are taxed in France, Denmark, Mexico, Ireland, United Kingdom, South Africa, Norway, and other countries. A study In Berkeley, California showed that public consumption of sugar was reduced by 20 percent with no impact to small businesses in the area.

The Measure 97 of 2016 is undoubtedly in the memory of the retail establishment. Proposed by the union-led coalition, “Our Oregon”, the measure was aimed at stabilizing Oregon’s state budgeting and avoiding the looming $1.4 billion budget shortfall in the immediate future.

The measure would directly tax only a small pool of the wealthiest corporations; less than a quarter of one percent of all businesses operating in the state. One expert believed that upward pressure on prices would only be about 0.8 percent.

Early this year when it was believed that there would be a “Soda Tax” on the November 2018 ballot, those in opposition decided to create measure 37 that would change the Oregon Constitution so that their could never be a sales taxes of any foodstuffs and groceries.

It was with this background that those who opposed taxes on sugar and food decided to end them once and for all.

Measure 37 is likely to be a controversial and powerful campaign throughout the fall.

Tax Proposal on Unhealthy Food

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