Richmond voters will decide Nov. 6 whether to tax merchants on sales of sugar-sweetened drinks.
After nearly five hours of debate, the Richmond City Council voted late Tuesday to put tandem measures on the ballot. One would impose a business license fee of 1 cent per ounce of sugar-sweetened beverages sold by local businesses.
The other ballot item is an advisory measure imploring the council to use the tax's proceeds for sports and health education programs aimed at local youths.
The measure's author, Councilman Jeff Ritterman, a former chief of cardiology at Kaiser Richmond Medical Center, said he will campaign to build local support for the November vote.
"I'm in this to win this," Ritterman said, adding that modern science has convinced him that sugar-sweetened beverages impair public health, particularly in poorer minority communities.
The vote for both measures was 5-2, with Councilmen Nat Bates and Corky Booze dissenting.
"I can't see this ballot measure passing," Bates said. "People are fed up with the taxes."
Taxing sodas and other sugar-sweetened beverages has been a hot-button issue in the city since November, when the council directed city staff to craft a ballot measure aimed at reducing soda consumption and generating revenues for public health programs.
Opponents, including local restaurant owners, grocers and market owners, have argued that the tax will put them at a disadvantage against competitors in nearby cities. Opponents also say the tax won't reduce consumption, will fall disproportionately on the working poor and dissuade prospective investors from opening restaurants and grocery stores in the city.
"This is not going to fly here," Booze said. "This is a regressive tax."
About 50 residents spoke during the public comment period, with roughly equal numbers supporting and opposing the ballot measure.
Proponents, led by Ritterman, say the tax will generate up to $8 million in annual tax revenue and reduce consumption of sugary drinks.
City staff said merchants would be expected to calculate their tax liabilities by monitoring inventory records, which would show how much of the affected products they sold.
During opening remarks at Tuesday's meeting, Ritterman hoisted a five-gallon water jug full of white sugar, saying that some kids consume that much added sugar per year.
"The product is toxic," Ritterman said. "I didn't know that as a doctor for a lot of years; this is new science."
Although the tax would include all beverages that have added sugar or sugar equivalents, the bulk of sugar-sweetened beverage sales remains soda.
Although no data exist for Richmond residents' soda-drinking habits, the national trend is down. The average American drinks fewer than two sodas per day, a drop of about 16 percent since 1998, according to Beverage Digest, a trade publication.
Tuesday's vote also paves the way to continue the city's recent run of firsts. Last June, Richmond became the first city in Contra Costa County to approve municipal identification cards. Earlier this year, Richmond became the first city in California to endorse a statewide "millionaire's tax" ballot measure.
The beverage tax would be the first of its kind in the nation if it passes in November, Ritterman said.
The tax could be a significant cost to local businesses. For example, sale of a 2-liter bottle of soda, a popular item in markets, would incur a new tax of about 67 cents.
Several business owners spoke out Tuesday against the tax, saying it would shave their already thin profit margins and push customers to nearby cities.
Ritterman and Mayor Gayle McLaughlin said they hoped to persuade leaders in surrounding cities to consider similar measures.
"There's no reason why we can't do this in the entire East Bay," Ritterman said.
Councilmen Tom Butt and Jim Rogers said they would prefer a coalition of cities or a statewide measure but still supported putting it on the ballot.
Both measures require simple majorities of voters in November.
The council majority left no doubt they were prepared to be out in front with the tax, at least initially.
"The best way to adopt these taxes is statewide and nationwide, but that's not always going to happen," Butt said. "This will be a wave that can sweep California and sweep the country."