Is Big Soda winning the soft drink wars?

Pennsylvania has found itself the latest battleground for a national strategy by soda producers aimed at stopping local taxes on their products—not by fighting the cities directly, but by pushing pliant state legislatures to ban any such tax increases statewide. Called “preemption” laws, they’re designed to limit cities from imposing taxes of their own. Legislatures in Arizona and Michigan have already passed state laws forbidding local soda taxes. In Washington state, the industry backed a voter initiative barring local soda taxes; it passed in 2018.

Perhaps the industry’s most remarkable success has been California, a progressive state in which multiple cities passed their own soda taxes in the wake of Berkeley’s first-in-the-nation law and additional cities were ramping up campaigns. There, the industry used the statewide initiative system as leverage over lawmakers: It collected enough signatures to put a measure on the state ballot that would prevent any city or locality from imposing any tax on residents, no matter what the reason, unless approved directly by two-thirds of voters. The lobby then offered to withdraw the measure from the ballot if legislators simply passed a law stopping local governments from taxing soda. Faced with a potential new law that could have crippled budgets statewide, they complied. California’s preemption law went into effect in 2018—ensuring that, until 2030, the only cities in the state with extra beverage taxes are the handful, like Berkeley, that have already adopted them.

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