Radio and television ads bombard the airways these days, touting the dire consequences of a state soda tax. Just to insure the public gets the message, workers at the Pepsi-Cola plant in College Point rallied last week against the measure, saying their jobs are in jeopardy.
Earlier this year, Gov. David Paterson proposed a tax of 1 cent per ounce on soft drinks containing more than 10 calories per 8 ounces. The tax would affect non-diet soda, sweetened water, sports beverages, energy drinks, sweetened bottled coffee and tea and fruit or vegetable drinks containing less than 70 percent natural juices.
The governor said the cash-strapped state would likely raise $450 million in revenue the first year and $1 billion in subsequent years through the tax, which he also said would help combat the obesity epidemic by reducing sugar intake.
Although both houses of the state Legislature oppose the levy, the governor is still pushing for passage. If approved, it would cost consumers an extra 12 cents per can of soda, 67 cents for a two-liter bottle or $1.44 per 12-pack. Not unexpectedly, the soft drink industry is calling the measure a regressive “sin tax” that would eliminate jobs and hurt low-income shoppers.
At the Pepsi plant last Friday, workers swarmed out of the facility to participate in the rally and were handed printed signs that read: “Save My Job.” Bill Wilson, president of Pepsi-Cola New York, said if the measure is approved it will send shoppers to other states to purchase cheaper soda. “This is a thinly veiled attempt to increase taxes,” Wilson said, “and two-thirds of New Yorkers are against it.”
Also on hand to lend his support to the workers was state Sen. Frank Padavan (R-Bellerose), who said the solution to the state’s economic plight “is jobs, jobs, jobs.” He urged people to eat healthy but that they should be able to buy the food they need.
“We need wage earners who pay taxes,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense. We’re never getting out of this [fiscal] mess without jobs.”
Padavan believes the fight against the proposal is being won, however, “the governor is persistent. The battle isn’t over, but together I think we’ll win. If it’s dumb, let’s not do it.”
He told the workers that Medicaid is the biggest part of the state budget, with $1 billion a week spent on it “more than what California and Texas spend combined” and said more fraud investigations would reduce costs by eliminating the illegal use of those funds.
Wilson estimated that if the bill is approved, between 10 and 15 percent of his workforce would have to be cut.
One of his employees, Mary Casey, has worked at the College Point plant for six years. She takes fountain syrup orders for Manhattan restaurants. “Businesses are already complaining about the prices now,” Casey said. “I feel our jobs are in jeopardy if they put a tax on soda.”
Another worker, Charles Contino, has been a loader at Pepsi for 30 years. “If this passes, I’ll lose my job,” Contino said. “It will kill business. I hope they can stop it.”
The rally was organized by New Yorkers Against Unfair Taxes, a group made up of grocers, beverage makers and small businesses. According to the organization’s handout, the beverage industry supports 160,000 jobs in the state, totaling $6.7 billion in wages.
But the Alliance for a Healthier New York says 57 percent of adults in Queens are overweight or obese and that the tax will help reduce consumption of sweetened drinks and encourage healthier lifestyles.
Since the governor has said some of the revenue generated by the tax will go to healthcare spending, the alliance contends that failure to pass it would result in Queens losing more than 2,700 healthcare jobs.
It has been estimated that the soft drink industry produces 52.4 gallons of soda per American a year with each 12-ounce can averaging 10 teaspoons of sugar.