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Jeff Ritterman

RICHMOND -- The architect of Richmond's failed campaign to tax soda was thousands of miles from the latest battleground in the movement he helped inspire, but the suspense had him on edge.

While lawmakers in Mexico City hammered out a budget Thursday that would include billions in new taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages, Dr. Jeff Ritterman pecked at his computer keyboard.

"I set my Google alert for the words soda tax and Mexico, and the first news alert came in at 8:47 p.m.," said Ritterman, a former Richmond councilman. "I started sending messages to some Facebook friends in Mexico who quickly confirmed."

After months of negotiations and trips by American public health experts, including Ritterman, to Mexico to speak with lawmakers there, the Mexican Congress passed a major budget reform bill that includes a one-peso-per-liter tax on sugary beverages and an 8 percent tax on fast-food restaurant sales. The new taxes, which helped send shares of Mexico-based Coca-Cola Femsa downward Thursday, is by far the biggest single blow in favor of the movement to tax sugary drinks as a tactic to curb obesity.

The unprecedented taxes were met with joy by activists in Richmond, who made global headlines last year in their failed bid to become the nation's first city to impose a penny-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.

"First domino falls in Soda Tax Wars! Who's next?" the Richmond Progressive Alliance, a volunteer political advocacy group, posted on its Facebook page.

For Ritterman, the news held even more relevance. The retired cardiologist-turned-anti-sugar-crusader traveled to Mexico City in late September to discuss the health effects of soda consumption and share what he learned from his failed campaign to persuade Richmond voters to tax it.

His visit was paid for by El Poder del Consumidor, a watchdog group in Mexico, and included several hours of meetings with members of the Mexican Congress. Ritterman traveled with Edgardo Cervano-Soto, a journalist with RichmondPulse.org who documented the trip.

"In Mexico City, you can't go anywhere without seeing the red Coca-Cola signs," Ritterman said. "But there we were, and I was sitting down with access to powerful lawmakers that I have never had on this issue in the U.S., having productive talks about the tax, how it would reduce obesity, and how to use the money to improve health."

For supporters, the new tax represents a blow to the heart of a global health crisis. Mexico consumes more soda per capita than any country in the world and has the highest obesity rate. The U.S. ranks second in both categories.

Mexico's step may pave the way for other governments to use taxes to stem soda consumption, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

"Science has now established that sugar drinks play an important role in weight gain, obesity, diabetes, and even heart disease," the center wrote in a Web announcement Thursday. "A soda tax is something that American city councils, state legislatures and Congress should be looking at in the months and years ahead."

Telluride, Colo., voters will go to the polls to decide whether to impose a penny-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks Tuesday, potentially becoming the first city in the United States to institute such a tax. San Francisco is considering a 2-cent-per-ounce soda tax for its 2014 ballot.

While Mexico's lawmakers passed the tax, ballot measures in the United States have been dominated by money from the American Beverage Association, which spent millions to beat back the tax in Richmond.

But opponents were nonplused by Mexico's move, noting that such a tax has failed multiple times in the United States and was trounced in Richmond by a 2-1 ratio.

"Mexico's politicians can tax it, but that doesn't have anything to do with what American voters are going to stand for," said Richmond Councilman Corky Boozé, a fierce opponent of the Richmond ballot measure last year. "It hasn't worked anywhere in this country yet, and I can guarantee it will never come back to Richmond."

Ritterman said he had no plans to resurrect his local tax in Richmond but said he was hopeful that taxes on sugary beverages would win in other cities and could become law at the state level.

State Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel, proposed a penny-per-ounce soda tax bill that was thwarted in committee in June but could reach the floor next year, Ritterman said.

"Richmond was the first to take on this fight, and that was a big step," Ritterman said. "Now, Mexico has taken the lead and has changed the whole equation."

Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726. Follow him at Twitter.com/sfbaynewsrogers.