The Nanny State: Comparing Richmond's soda tax to California's anti-smoking campaign

Sep 13, 2012

As controversy rages regarding the government's right to regulate health, some have been quick to compare the ideas of government regulation to preventing obesity, to legislation against lung cancer and smoking. While  obesity and lung cancer are both health issues, research shows that they aren't as analogous as one might expect. Men who smoke a pack  of cigarettes per day have a relative risk of mortality nearly four times higher than the national average. The relative risk of mortality from obesity isn't even close to that; it's 1.5 times the average.

Even so, health advocates maintain that there's a lot to be learned from the government work to stamp out smoking. Dr. Stan Glatz, director of UCSF center for tobacco control research and education, comments on Richmond's tax, in light of California's fight to ban cigarettes.

DR. STAN GLATZ: Well, I think that the measure to tax sugary drinks, which is starting out here in California, Richmond’s, is a great idea. It’s really modeled on the success we had with the early clean indoor air movement at the local level. Whether it wins or loses in Richmond the fight is joined and the more discussion there is of these issues, the more debate of these things there are, the more the public gets educated – and it was a series of losses that we suffered in the late 70s, early 80s, that really laid the foundation for all the progress on tobacco since then.

I think that the same is true in the soda tax issue. I mean, sugary drinks are a huge public health problem – and taxation is a proven way to reduce consumption. And, the debate over the tax is a great way to educate people. Whether the people in Richmond will succeed, or whether the corporate interests that control the soda industry defeat them in this campaign, who knows?

The fate of California’s Proposition 29 could foreshadow what’s to come for the Richmond soda-tax measure. Prop 29 would have added one dollar per pack to cigarette sales. It led in the polls early on, until tobacco companies spent nearly $50 million on a “No on 29” campaign. The measure failed by a narrow margin.

Dr. Stan Glantz believes non-smoking advocates must continue introducing new legislation to regulate cigarette sales. He adds that the anti-smoking movement actually developed in Berkeley, California.

GLATZ: The whole story in California started in the late 70s, when a few people started thinking that they didn’t want to breathe secondhand smoke – that secondhand smoke was indoor air pollution, and that people should have a right to go about their lives without breathing it. That group tried to get a law passed in Berkeley, which they did, which created non-smoking sections in restaurants.

That was viewed as pretty radical for the day, to say that you could only smoke in certain places. They then went to the state legislature to try to get a law passed for the state to, again, simply create no-smoking sections – something that by today’s standards would be considered a complete sellout to the tobacco companies. But by then the tobacco industry had really realized that they had a problem in California, and was up in the legislature in force, with their lobbyists, with their campaign contributions. And the effort was blocked.

That led that group to try the initiative route, and they introduced the bill, an initiative, in 1978 called Proposition 5, again, to simply create non-smoking sections. The tobacco companies came in, spent millions of dollars – more money than in every other state election in the state that year – and defeated this initiative, claiming that it was unreasonable; that it infringed on freedom; that it was a nanny state; that while secondhand smoke was a problem, the initiative was flawed.

And in the end, it started ahead, way ahead, and the industry beat it back and defeated it. I got involved late in that campaign, personally. We tried again in 1980, the same thing happened – and we realized that we just didn’t have enough money to take on the tobacco companies in a state initiative campaign, that the tobacco companies owned the legislature, and so we went to working at the community level, and started getting local ordinances passed around the state.

By ten years later, we had about 85 percent of the state covered by strong local legislation. In the mid 1980s, the Surgeon General issued the first report on secondhand smoke, saying secondhand smoke caused lung cancer, and that simply having separate sections wasn’t good enough, and then the movement went toward having smoke-free environments. Which we enjoy today.