San Francisco supervisors are currently proposing a ballot measure that would impose a tax on sugary beverages sold within the city. The measure, which would impose a two-penny per ounce fee on soda distributors, is expected to be considered by voters this upcoming November. The proposal, however, has fizzed a passionate debate between community health advocates and soda corporations. Both sides are likely to spend millions of dollars fighting for and against the proposed tax.
The measure would apply to non-alcoholic beverages with added sugar where the beverage has at least 25 calories per 12 ounces. However, it would not apply to diet soda, natural juices, milk, infant formula or medical drinks. If passed, the tax would generate up to $31 million in revenue for San Francisco. Supporters, however, claim that the soda tax is not primarily intended to generate revenue for the city, but rather to fight for better health and against diabetes.
“We are experiencing an epidemic of health problems directly attributable to sugary beverages—including spikes in diabetes and obesity afflicting adults, teenagers, and even young children,” said District Eight Supervisor Scott Wiener. “Teenagers, particularly in low- income communities, are now being diagnosed with pre-diabetes or full-blown diabetes.”
According to the American Diabetes Association, each additional sugary beverage consumed per day increases a child’s risk for obesity by 60%. Additionally, one in three children born today will develop type 2 diabetes in their lifetime if sugary beverage consumption does not decline.
Supporters of the tax also criticize soda companies for their aggressive advertising campaigns directed at youth, especially in low-income communities.
“As a father I know our families need help when they live in environments saturated with sugary drinks that are aggressively marketed everywhere children turn,” said District One Supervisor Eric Mar. “I share our collective desire to make San Francisco better for families and to continue to be a city that protects our public health and allows all neighborhoods to thrive.”
Opponents of the measure, led by the American Beverage Association, are already in full force against the tax. The Association, with the campaign name of “Coalition for an Affordable City,” is the trade organization that represents the beverage industry in the United States. Members consist of producers and bottlers of soft drinks, bottled water and other non-alcoholic beverages.
“Our position is that city government should be focusing on more important issues, such as the widening affordability gap in the state,” said Nick Panagopoulos, a spokesman for the Stop Unfair Beverage Taxes Campaign. “This is the last thing we need—a new tax that will increase prices at the grocery store and drive up the cost of living for everybody, whether or not you drink soda.”
At two cents per ounce, the tax on the distribution of beverages would add $0.40 to the cost of a regular 20-ounce bottle of soda and just under $3.00 to the cost of a 12-pack of 12-ounce soda cans. Opponents argue that this is a regressive tax, or rather one that takes a proportionally greater amount from low-income communities. However, supporters disagree and say that the diseases soda causes are far more regressive.
“Frankly diabetes is a much more regressive tax than a two pennies per ounce sugary beverage tax,” said Supervisor Wiener. “Selling unhealthy, disease-causing, cheap products to poor people–that’s not progressive. That’s regressive.”
Youth, many of whom are loyal customers to the beverage industry, are also incredibly split on the issue of a soda tax. The San Francisco Youth Commission, an advisory body tasked with advising the Mayor and Board of Supervisors on issues impacting young people in the city, recently supported the Supervisors’ proposal unanimously.
“I really like the idea of the money going back to the communities that are affected by diabetes and obesity the most,” said Michelle Kong, the Vice-Chair of the Commission. “Optimally the sugary beverage tax will help us cut down on consumption so much that we will become the healthiest city in the nation within the next two decades.”
The Youth Commission’s counterpart at the School District, however, was not so keen on the issue. They cited lack of evidence that a tax on soda would actually be effective.
“I do realize that the issues of diabetes and obesity are very significant and do need to be addressed,” said Cooper Logan, a Student Delegate to the Board of Education at a January Board of Education Meeting. “However, the Student Advisory Council decided that the soda tax isn’t the solution to the myriad of problems discussed tonight.”
The Board of Education, despite supporting the initiative by a vote of 5-2, also had serious concerns about the timing of the ballot proposal. The Public Education Enrichment Fund (PEEF) and Children’s Fund, which help schools fund pre-school support, sports, libraries, arts and music and supportive services, are also on the ballot this November.
“I have to say that my priority right now is the PEEF and the Children’s Fund. And that’s it for right now,” said Hydra Mendoza-McDonnell, a member of the Board of Education. “The urgency around doing [the soda tax] the same time that we’re doing PEEF and Children’s Fund hasn’t been convincing enough to me yet.”
While there are still a lot of questions to be answered, the passionate debate around the soda tax nearly a year before the election is setting a stage for a political duel in the upcoming months. Ultimately, even after millions of campaign dollars spent on both sides, it will be up to the voters to have the final say.