By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 14, 2010; B01
The beverage industry is mounting an expensive campaign to derail a D.C. Council proposal for a citywide soda tax, setting up a two-week showdown between some city grocers and health advocates over how best to curb childhood obesity rates.
To pay for a council initiative requiring city schools to serve more fresh fruit and vegetables to students, council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) has proposed a 1-cent-per-ounce tax on bottled and canned soda that contains sugar. Diet soda would be exempt.
Although Cheh's proposal initially appeared to have broad support on the council, she conceded Thursday that industry opposition has taken its toll.
"It is hard to fight against a multimillion dollar PR effort from big soda," Cheh said. "If people are not fully attuned and fully aware, they can get scared easily. I am worried my colleagues are not going to go beneath the surface."
Last week, the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Beverage Association organized more than three dozen city grocers and restaurants to form a group called No D.C. Beverage Tax. The group has been airing radio spots and running full-page ads in local newspapers demanding that the council not approve the tax. The council is slated to take up the matter as part of the fiscal 2011 budget it plans to adopt later this month.
Ellen Valentino, executive vice president of the beverage association, denied Cheh's assertion that her organization is spending millions on the campaign. But Valentino added that the group plans to spend "whatever it takes to get the message out."
"During these tough economic times, we are talking about the grocery store cart here," said Valentino, noting that Cheh's proposal would add about $1.44 to the cost of a 12-pack of soda. "We are talking about the working families and what some people look at as staples on their shopping list."
But Cheh is vowing to step up her efforts, noting that she needs to find about $6 million for the Healthy Schools Initiative so it can be in place by the 2010-11 school year.
The bill, which the council passed unanimously last week, urges schools to buy produce from farms in Maryland and Virginia, requires schools to serve breakfast in the classroom and expands the free lunch program.
On Thursday, Cheh appeared with council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to celebrate the passage of the bill.
Vilsack called the bill "a good example" for the nation, but he said the Obama administration has no position on the proposed soda tax, calling it a "local matter."
Nutrition advocates, however, are mobilizing to try to counter the beverage industry. The Campaign for Healthy Kids, Earth Day Network and the Capital Area Food Bank are heading up the campaign. On Wednesday, the Campaign for Healthy Kids released a poll showing broad support for the tax.
"Soda consumption in the District is fueling an expensive epidemic of diet-related diseases," said Michael F. Jacobson, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, another member of the coalition. "A modest tax on this nutritionally worthless, disease-promoting product would give our seniors and children greater access to fresh fruits, vegetables and other health-promoting foods."
Gray, who is challenging incumbent Adrian M. Fenty (D) in the mayor's race, said he has not taken a position on the soda tax. But Gray vowed that he and other council members would find some way to pay for the Healthy Schools Initiative.
If her 1-cent-per-ounce tax proposal fails, Cheh said, she will propose extending the city's sales tax to soda. Currently, Cheh said, soda is exempt from the sales tax because it is considered a grocery item.