A majority of D.C. Council members signaled their opposition Thursday to a 1-cent-per-ounce tax on soda, probably killing the proposal.
During a budget negotiations Thursday, council members battled for more than an hour over the proposal. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) is pushing for the tax, which would apply to soda with sugar but not to diet soda, as a way to combat childhood obesity while funding a new initiative to require city schools to serve healthier food.
"This is the single most significant, meaningful thing you can do for this problem," Cheh said. "We can be a leader here. We can improve health and wellness."
In recent weeks, the soda industry has mounted an expensive campaign to derail the proposal, airing radio and newspaper ads against it. The industry has partnered with dozens of local grocers and restaurants. Health advocates, however, responded with their own media and lobbying campaign. Actor Morgan Freeman, for example, called several council members Wednesday to try to rally support for the bill.
But council members Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Harry Thomas (D-Ward 5), Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) and Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) launched a ferocious assault on the proposal today.
Thomas, armed with bottles of Gatorade, argued that the proposal was too confusing because it would also apply to some sports drinks and protein shakes.
"This is a 20-ounce bottle of Gatorade," said Thomas, a little league sports coach. "So if I take this 20 ounce bottle and the tax applies, that means each one is 20 cents more ... for something I want my kids to have after a game."
Bowers argued that poor families would suffer if the tax, which would add $1.44 to the cost of a 12-pack, was approved.
Instead of holding a vote, council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) all but declared Cheh's proposal dead about 3:15 p.m.
Gray said he will instead ask his staff to come up with other possible ways to pay for Cheh's Healthy Schools initiative.
Cheh will probably now push to have the city's 6 percent sales tax extended to soda. Currently, the sales tax does not apply to soda because it is considered a grocery item.
The Healthy Schools legislation, approved unanimously by the council two weeks ago, requires city public and charter schools to serve more fresh fruits and vegetables, offer free breakfast in the classroom and add thousands of children to the city's free-lunch program.
But the bill has a $6.2 million price tag, meaning it cannot be implemented for the 2010-2011 school year without a revenue source.
-- Tim Craig