Opponents and supporters dig in for SF showdown over sugary-beverage tax 

San Francisco officials’ push for a soda tax officially began with a campaign kickoff over the weekend in the Bayview district, and Tuesday is expected to feature the introduction of a finalized November ballot measure that would levy a 2-cents-per-ounce tax on sugary beverages.

City officials already have their energies focused on weighty issues for the November ballot, such as a minimum-wage increase and a vehicle license fee hike to raise revenue for Muni. But the soda tax is sure to remain front and center throughout the year, and recent comments from opponents might mean things will get ugly.

National organizations are expected to join city officials in backing the campaign and fighting the American Beverage Association, which in the past has poured millions of dollars into defeating such measures in other locales.

Efforts elsewhere failed to meet with voter approval. Closest to San Francisco, the Richmond soda-tax proposal was defeated by more than 60 percent of the vote in 2012. Most recently, in November, voters in Telluride, Colo., opposed a soda tax.

Yet members of the Board of Supervisors, in working closely with health officials and health advocates, say they can persuade San Francisco voters this November and succeed where others have not. They will need two-thirds voter approval since the tax measure would require funds to be spent in a certain way.

INITIAL ARGUMENTS

Meanwhile, the strategy to defeat the soda tax is emerging in ads and statements from the beverage association, which already set up a Coalition for an Affordable City group to seemingly capitalize upon the rising unrest in San Francisco over the cost-of-living increase and housing crisis.

“The only thing a beverage distribution tax will accomplish in San Francisco is to raise grocery and restaurant prices for everyone — for soda drinkers and non-soda-drinkers alike,” said Chuck Finnie, a spokesman for the beverage industry, in a statement issued Friday. “At a time when affordability is the biggest concern of voters, new taxes that raise the cost of living are the last thing the Board of Supervisors should be focused on.”

Supervisor Scott Wiener, one of the more outspoken supporters of the tax, disputed that claim. He insisted that the beverage industry spends millions of dollars and makes false arguments opposing every soda tax proposal because it’s “terrified” that if a tax is approved in one place then many others will follow.

“To say it will raise other prices is specious,” Wiener said Friday, adding that what increases costs, on health care premiums and government health services in particular, is the adverse health impacts of drinking soda — diabetes and obesity, among others.

Another backer of the measure, Supervisor Eric Mar, said the soda tax “addresses the horrible environment that big soda has created, where low-income communities have soda billboards on their homes and a saturation of ads. Adding 2 cents per ounce for drinks that are harmful will not harm anyone’s cost of living.”

click to enlarge soda
  • Seth Perlman/2006 AP file photo
  • Supervisor Scott Wiener says the negative impacts of drinking sugary beverages, including obesity and diabetes, increase cost on health care and health services in San Francisco.

SEARCHING FOR SUPPORT

Getting the buy-in from local business owners may be a hard sell. Business groups have yet to take a position.

Scott Hauge, founder of Small Business California and a longtime San Francisco small-business advocate, said, “Clearly small businesses are concerned about obesity and health problems like everybody else. The question is, ‘Is this the answer?’”

A main concern is “increasing their cost to their customer,” Hauge said. Also, he said, part of the debate is, why target soda?

“Is the sugar someone gets in a soda more significant than the sugar they get from a cookie?” Hauge asked.

The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce is currently vetting the proposal.

“Some members are in support, some members are not,” said Jim Lazarus, a chamber representative. “A case has to be made that charging more is going to change a certain amount of habit.”

A 2012 study conducted by a group of scientists and released by UC San Francisco found that a penny-per-ounce tax on sweetened beverages “would reduce consumption of these beverages by 15 percent among adults ages 25-64.”

Within a decade, the study found, a one-cent soda tax nationwide could “prevent 2.4 million diabetes person-years, 95,000 coronary heart events, 8,000 strokes, and 26,000 premature deaths, while avoiding more than $17 billion in medical costs.”

On top of the health benefits, the study said, the tax would generate some $13 billion in annual revenue.

LEARNING FROM THE PAST

As the proposal wends through the Board of Supervisors — a vote on whether to place it on the November ballot is expected in the summer — those on both sides of the debate will likely be keeping a close eye on Mexico. Last year, that country’s Congress approved a 1-peso-per-liter tax on sugary drinks that took effect this year.

The campaign to pass the tax was helped by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, which also may throw its money behind the San Francisco soda-tax effort. As mayor of New York, Bloomberg’s plan to ban the sale of large sodas there was struck down by a state judge last year.

Mayor Ed Lee has not taken a position on The City’s soda-tax proposal, but last year he did support Bloomberg’s effort on the federal level to disqualify soda from allowable food stamp purchases.

LOOKING AHEAD

On Tuesday, a finalized version of a soda-tax ballot measure will be introduced to the Board of Supervisors that would levy 2 cents on the sale of every ounce of a sugary beverage. The estimated $31 million that it would generate annually would go toward various public programs and nonprofit organizations.

About 40 percent would go to public schools for such things as physical education, school nutrition and after-school nutrition; 25 percent for such things as recreation centers and sports; 25 percent for Department of Public Health programs and water-bottle-filling stations; and 10 percent in grants to various nonprofits through the health department, according to Maggie Muir, a well-known campaign consultant leading the soda-tax effort.

“This is a public-health crisis,” Muir said. “The intent is to draw down consumption.”

When San Francisco became the first U.S. city to ban plastic bags in 2007, others quickly followed suit. A similar effect is possible with the soda tax.

“If it passes, it is sort of a bellwether for other places to now follow,” Muir said.

Proposed tax on sugary beverages

Members of the Board of Supervisors have highlighted facts and details of the proposal:

THE FACTS

As of 2010, nearly one-third of San Francisco children and adolescents were either obese or overweight; they are at increased risk for diabetes, sleep disorders, learning problems, asthma and depression

Each extra serving of sugar-sweetened beverages per day increases a child’s risk of becoming obese by 60 percent

Residents pay millions a year in costs to city — costs directly attributed to sugary beverages, not foods

THE PROPOSAL

2 cents per ounce on the sale of sweetened beverages, excluding fruit and vegetable juices and milks, along with drinks containing 25 calories or less

Funds collected would be dedicated to nutrition, health and physical activity programs in schools and neighborhoods

Tax would be collected directly from soda distributors, not small businesses

Source: Board of Supervisors

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