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Crosscurrents logo 2021

The Nanny State: Richmond's mayor not afraid to take on 'Big Sugar'


Sixteen percent of people in Richmond live below the poverty line. The city has the highest rate of diabetes deaths in Contra Costa County. But it also has one of the nation’s most progressive mayors, Mayor Gayle McLaughlin.

McLaughlin supports the city’s proposed measure to tax sodas and the measure to direct revenue to healthy programs. She was behind a voter-approved tax a few years back that was almost exclusively directed at Chevron, which operates a massive refinery in Richmond. That tax will draw in more than $100 million over the next 15 years.

McLaughlin spoke with KALW’s Isaac Silk about her thoughts on the proposition to tax sugar-sweetened drinks at a rate of one penny per ounce. Silk asked her about the concerns store owners have about the effect that tax could have on their businesses.

MAYOR GAYLE MCLAUGHLIN: I actually don’t think that’s the case – and I don’t think that’s the feeling of all of our business owners. We want our community to not drink as much sugary beverages, and that means they don’t need to give them up altogether. The stores will still sell them. If people just cut down 20 percent on the amount of sugary beverages they drink, there would be just a huge impact in the health and the reduction of obesity and diabetes and heart disease.

What we want markets to do is to just start showcasing more the sparkling water and the juices and you know healthy drinks. They can change their marketing approach in terms of how they showcase products in their stores, and that way, they will be encouraging a healthier community and they’ll be bringing forward the same amount of revenue that they always have for themselves and they’ll still have sale of the sugary beverages, just at a lesser amount.

SILK: One teen I spoke to earlier this week felt that instead of raising the price of soda, the government should be working to reduce the cost of healthier foods. Is this something that Richmond is working on?

MCLAUGHLIN: The healthy food is something that we know that we’re promoting in our community at the same time. We’re actually distributing healthy produce that’s locally grown, so, at very, at either no cost or very reasonable prices. Like a box of Richmond grown produce will be distributed, a full crate of healthy vegetables for $15 – and even less if people can’t afford that, $5, you know, so we have gardens in both our high schools and we have gardens up in the greenway. We have a nonprofit called Urban Tilt, whose goal is to grow five percent of all our food locally, so we’re really trying to make the affordable healthy food put out there for our residents.

SILK: So what is your philosophy? What do you see as the role of government in terms of public health, how much of this is trying to make people in Richmond more healthy, as opposed to saving money on health care costs?

MCLAUGHLIN: Well, my primary motivation is the health of our community. There is no question that this is an epidemic in our community. I mean, the obesity rate of children in West County in Richmond is really, really high, and they’ve done studies where over 50 percent of children in grade levels are obese in Richmond and in West County. And it’s really troubling because these are kids who deserve a healthy childhood, and healthy teenage years, and moving into becoming healthy adults. And they’ve been totally manipulated as have adults – their parents and other adults – and all of us in many ways, have been highly manipulated by the big soda companies.

Big corporations have manipulated people for a long time, and continue to, and so this is something that’s directly impacting the health and well-being of our community and it’s a small way that we can make a difference and divert the funds into healthy activities and programs – it has created a situation where government, where it’s important that government step in, and say hey, we don’t want our communities to suffer in this way. So that’s what’s motivating me, and I don’t think it’s a hardship.

Soda is not food. It’s not an essential product that people need. And people can still purchase it on a limited basis. So I’m doing this because I think it’ll cause people to reduce their consumption and that’s what’s needed.

Audio available after 5pm.