One year on from implementation, Boulder's tax on sugary drinks still elicits passionate reactions from critics and supporters alike. The campaign for and against implementing a 2 cents-per-fluid-ounce penalty on distributors was the most expensive ever waged in the city, and though the monied interests are mostly gone, the strident opposition lingers.
Critics allege that the tax — which generated millions more than expected in revenue — failed to achieve its goal of discouraging soda consumption. Its real impact is to burden small business owners and consumers, they say, and encourage shady pricing practices.
Supporters contend that similar taxes in other municipalities have reduced consumption, and that the moneys being directed to various groups are having a real impact on the health and nutrition of kids and lower-income populations.
This November, voters will get a chance to decide whether or not to direct even more funds to such efforts — or return the cash to distributors who, by and large, have passed on the costs to retailers.
"We are invoiced by the distributor," said Chris Heinritz, co-owner of The Sink. "They treat the tax as a separate line item — over $15,000 a year."
The Sink in turn has raised its prices to cover the cost, as have many restaurants. According to Heinritz, higher prices have had no noticeable impact on soda consumption: "People are drinking less soda in general," he said.
Soda sales at Mustard's Last Stand have taken a big hit, owner Daniel Polovin said. He believes the overall higher prices are to blame; both men said customers have little to no understanding that a soda tax is in place, despite posted signage.
"We're getting a lot of angry customers (and) taking a lot of grief for high prices," said Polovin. Added Heinritz: "I don't think people remember or realize the tax exists and just think that our sodas are too expensive."
That confusion has led some retailers to play fast and loose with their pricing, some soda drinkers allege. Patrick Goode sees inconsistencies between stores blocks apart from one other with the same product, even those under the same ownership.
The discrepancy "doesn't make sense," Goode said. "I think the businesses are taking advantage of the tax" to charge more than is necessary.
Still, Goode hasn't changed his consumption habits. Many say they have, though. A friend of Goode's who did not want to be named because she works for the county, said she travels to Lafayette from her south Boulder home to buy sweet drinks. As a result, much of her other shopping has moved there as well.
Polivin said he hears similar stories from Boulder's remaining "blue-collar people" who "don't even stop in Boulder for a sandwich anymore," instead opting for nearby Lafayette or Louisville.
Soda tax detractors say the measure is dragging down the city's overall sales tax revenue. The data doesn't quite bear that out. While sales are down slightly at food stores, they are up at "eating places," according to Boulder tax data. Other categories not related to sugary beverage sales have seen far larger decreases year over year.
The soda tax itself has brought in over $3.7 million through March of this year, the latest tax data available. That money has been doled out to 19 organizations supporting health and nutrition in the area, particularly among youth, lower-income and minority populations.
The funds have been used to help diabetes patients manage their disease, to advocate for clean drinking water in Latino communities and to educate kids and families on diet and exercise. The Boulder Farmers Market provided vouchers to low-income residents to shop there; Clinica Family Health is paying for family passes to city rec centers.
"We're thrilled about the work the tax is doing," said Kristen Daly, a member of the Healthy Boulder Kids coalition that advocated for the tax. "The money is really going where its supposed to, so for us it's been a success."
Daly also disputes the claim that the measure has pushed shoppers out of Boulder, viewing it as propaganda pushed by the beverage industry, which spent heavily to defeat the tax in 2016. The American Beverage Association has spent and lobbied heavily to combat similar efforts around the nation, most recently with a state law in California that banned all such taxes for 12 years.
Chicago notably repealed its tax mere months after implementation, in the wake of a legal challenge. The fate of Philadelphia's — and possibly many other city's — is being decided in Pennsylvania's highest court, despite revenue that failed to meet expectations.
Boulder has had the opposite problem. The city revised its projections that the tax would bring in $3.8 million in 2018, up to $5.2 million. To keep the extra funds, Boulder must seek voter approval, which it will do with a ballot measure this November.
If it doesn't pass, anything above and beyond $3.8 million will be returned to the distributors that pay the tax. There in nothing to compel them to return it to retailers — or consumers. Several distributors contacted by the Camera did not respond to requests for comment.
Healthy Boulder Kids is, of course, supporting the ballot measure. Although formal study data won't be out until early next year, Daly believes soda consumption is being impacted, just as it has in other cities with sugary drink taxes, and particularly among those most likely to suffer soda's ill health effects.
"The fact that people at a fancy Boulder restaurant are still drinking soda is not really the point," she said. "The richer groups tend to not reduce consumption as much but it has tended to decrease consumption in lower-income groups, and that's also where the money is being applied.
"It's a win-win situation."