RICHMOND -- Richmond High School's debate teams gave the grown-ups a lesson in civil discourse Monday night.
Twelve seniors engaged in an Oxford-style debate hosted by the school's Health Academy, arguing both sides of Measure N in the school's Little Theater just hours before the polls open on the controversial local ballot measure.
Measure N would levy a penny-per-ounce tax on businesses that sell sugar-sweetened beverages in the city.
"When cigarettes were taxed, fewer people smoked," said Richmond High senior Bryan Ramirez. "They are afraid," Ramirez said of the major beverage corporations that have spent millions opposing the local ballot measure.
Melissa Avalos, arguing against Measure N, said the solution to unhealthy dietary habits and curbing obesity does not lay in tax policy.
"(Measure N) is a tax on the people who can least afford it," Avalos said.
Monday night's event was the final act in a months-long debate in Richmond over whether to become the first city in the nation to tax sugar-sweetened beverages in an effort to curb consumption and generate funds for anti-obesity and recreation programs.
Proponents say the tax will curb sales and consumption and generate $2 million to $4 million annually for youth recreation and health programs. Opponents say the tax measure is poorly-crafted and will hit the city's poor hardest while stifling already struggling grocers and restaurants.
But there were no "No on N" signs or slick campaign mailers or television commercial spots Monday night. It was just a six-on-six exercise in forensics, with the winner decided by the popular vote of an audience of more than 100. About 60 students participated in the month-long debate prep, researching the topics and composing papers, said Mike Mannix, an English teacher who runs the school's debate program.
The audience voted yes or no before the debate and again after, with the side that persuaded more votes their way declared the winner.
The pro-N side picked up seven new votes, earning the victory.
Local elected officials including Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and Councilman Jeff Ritterman, Measure N's biggest proponent, attended the event.
Ritterman said he hoped that all the students involved would be leaders on issues of community health in the future.
"No matter what happens on Election Day, we feel like we've already won," Ritterman said. "We've changed the conversation."
The students were polite and advanced sophisticated arguments about health, tax policy, and economic impacts associated with the proposed tax. The debate was a stark contrast to the often virulent clashes between adults on both sides of the issue in recent months.
The students delved into the issues of regressive taxes, obesity causes and research into the effects of sugary-beverage consumption. Anti-N team member Jazmin Gonzalez noted that the elasticity of soda demand is largely unknown, and conclusions about how much the tax would reduce consumption are based on assumptions.
"This is just a theory," Gonzalez said.
The anti-N debaters noted that the money generated by the tax would go to the city's General Fund, without any legal obligation to spend on anti-obesity and recreation programs.
But pro-N students said the benefits outweighed the concerns.
"Is not the money in our General Fund meant to help the city?" asked pro-N debater Jose Castillo.
Richmond High senior David Serrano delivered the anti-N side's closing argument. He questioned pronouncements by city leaders that soda and other sugary beverages impair the physical, social and intellectual health of the community.
"Ask yourself, does it sound logical that soda would create so much turmoil?" Serrano said.