San Francisco Legislator Proposes Soda Tax to Fight Obesity, Diabetes

Voters in the City by the Bay could be deciding on a soda levy in the next election

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Bottles of Coca-Cola Co. soda are displayed on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2013.

For San Francisco, a place where tofu has its own festival and plastic bags have been banned for half a decade, it almost seems late for government officials to be entering the soda-tax wars. But on Tuesday, a city legislator will introduce a bill to put a sugary-drink levy on the ballot in November 2014.

Supervisor Scott Wiener, one of the city’s 11 non-partisan legislators, will present a proposal to tax sodas and other sweetened beverages at a rate of two cents per ounce. That number was inspired by studies like a 2010 Harvard paper, which showed significant decreases in the sale of sugary drinks with price hikes in the neighborhood of 35%. Under the measure, a $1.60 bottle of soda would set the buyer back an extra 25%.

To pass, the bill needs a majority vote from the board and then approval from two-thirds of voters next fall. Voters in two other California cities — El Monte and Richmond — rejected beverage taxes in the last election, and a state bill taxing sodas died in committee earlier this year, after being opposed by groups like Californians for Food and Beverage Choice. That group, organized by the American Beverage Association, labeled the bill’s advocates “beverage police” and has already expressed disapproval of Wiener’s planned proposal.

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“We’re not banning anything,” Wiener says. “We have a product with known negative health consequences that is very, very cheap.” Wiener feels his plan’s strength is a strict rule about where the revenue will be going. Other bills, he says, have used vague language that makes voters feel the funds will “go into the government black hole.” His bill would fund only health-oriented programs like food access for low-income residents and athletic activities. The mayor of Seattle floated a similar idea at a forum last month, suggesting that money from a soda tax be funneled to the city’s parks.

A recent study from the California Center for Public Health Advocacy found that Golden State kids ages 6 to 11 were drinking less soda in 2011 and 2012 than they had been five years earlier. In San Francisco, the consumption rate was down 16%. “That’s not enough,” Wiener says. “This stuff is so easy to access. We have a big problem.” He also notes that consumption was still up among teenagers.

The bill’s advocates can count on pushback from powerful soda-makers with deep pockets and may find themselves opposed by outfits like the Teamsters, workers who transport the drinks. When asked why the bill is coming now, Wiener says that public awareness of the links between sugar intake and diseases like diabetes was much weaker a few years ago. Now, he says, it’s common knowledge. The San Franciscan also knows he’s still got a fight on his hands. “It’s winnable,” he says. “But it’s not a slam dunk.”