Like many shoppers, Ms. Brumfield was surprised to learn that Coca-Cola, Pepsi and the Dr Pepper Snapple Group have provided the lion share of money to promote the measure. “Knowing that kind of gives me pause about whether I should support it,” she said.
In Oregon, the grocery tax ballot, known as Measure 103, has been met with more public skepticism, largely because it involves a change to the state constitution. Opponents of the measure have also raised more money than in Washington, around $2.6 million, including an infusion of $1.5 million last week from former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The group supporting the measure, Yes! Keep Our Groceries Tax Free!, has raised more than twice that amount, with donations evenly split between soda companies and supermarket chains.
Critics accuse the Yes on 103 campaign of spreading misinformation, citing a television ad that claimed the initiative would prevent levies on food pantries. “There is no universe in which food banks are going to be taxed,” said Matt Newell-Ching, public affairs director at Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon, an advocacy group. “It’s like saying ‘vote for this measure and the sky will continue to be blue.’”
Last year, Seattle became the first city in the Pacific Northwest to enact a tax on sugary beverages, and it would be allowed to remain in place should the ballot measure pass. The tax is expected to generate $20.6 million this year, money that will go toward early education and a raft of programs that give the working poor better access to healthier foods.
Sarah Wandler, a social worker at the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic, said soda tax revenues have provided 300 families at the clinic with vouchers to buy fresh produce at farmer’s markets and corner stores. “Our clients all report having healthier foods in the house and they are trying fruits and vegetables they never had before,” she said.
State Sen. Reuven Carlyle, a Democrat, is pessimistic about the prospects for defeating the referendum, but he takes the long view, citing the decades-long fight against Big Tobacco that eventually changed national attitudes.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “you can’t bury the truth because let’s be honest: no one on the planet believes that soda is groceries.”