On Tuesday, San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener says he will propose a 2 cents-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. If the board passes his proposal, San Francisco voters will see it on the ballot next November.
This tax is double the amount proposed last year in elections in the California cities of Richmond and El Monte. Those were a penny-per-ounce each and both were defeated by voters.
In addition to the amount of the tax, there's another major difference between Wiener's proposal and the two that failed. In Wiener's plan, revenues generated by the tax — an estimated $31 million per year — would be earmarked for children's recreation and nutrition programs. In Richmond and El Monte, revenues would have gone to the general fund. Voters were skeptical that soda tax revenues would ever really fund children's health programs, despite city council resolutions that they would.
Harold Goldstein, executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, said he thinks the plan has "a very good chance" before San Francisco voters, specifically because of the earmarked funds.
Goldstein believes that as San Franciscans learn more about "how harmful these products are to our children and teens" and as they learn about the types of programs that could be created with the dedicated funding, San Franciscans will "turn in support" of the tax. Indeed, a Field Poll in February found that 68 percent of Californians said they would support a soda tax if revenues supported children's health and recreation programs.
He pointed to the urgent need to curb consumption of sugary beverages among teenagers. A study from his organization released earlier this month showed that San Francisco teens are drinking at least one soda or sugar-sweetened beverage every day "while there is overwhelming evidence that all of this sugar leads directly to obesity and diabetes," he said.
As State of Health reported in early 2012, an analysis from researchers at UC San Francisco found that a penny-per-ounce tax could cut consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages by a modest, but still important,15 percent. Wiener's office is citing that study to support the role of taxes in reducing consumption. As we noted at the time:
The [researchers] say that modest reduction will lead to modest weight loss, which in turn leads to modest reductions in diabetes. After the researchers crunched all the numbers, all those modest reductions would, over ten years, result in 26,000 lives saves (or avoiding “premature deaths” as researchers prefer to say).
There would also be 95,000 fewer instances of heart disease and 8,000 fewer strokes.
To arguments that taxes of this type are regressive, hitting poor people hardest, Goldstein had a sharp retort: "What we absolutely know is regressive are obesity and diabetes." There are 16 teaspoons of sugar in a 20 ounce soda, Goldstein observed. "Our pancreas and our livers are not designed to be able to handle that much sugar."
Goldstein is so sold on Wiener's plan that he declared this "may very well prove to be the most effective obesity and diabetes prevention effort in the country."
Not everyone agrees. As KQED's NewsFix reported Tuesday afternoon, Californians For Food and Beverage Choice, an anti-soda tax group, called measures like Wiener's "unncecesary, wasteful distractions from serious policymaking. Providing people with education, opportunities for physical activity and diverse beverage choices to fit their lifestyles are proven strategies for maintaining health."
This post has been updated: It was Richmond's City Council and not board of supervisors) that passed a resolution to dedicate soda tax funds to children's health and recreation programs. We have also added perspective from Californians for Food and Beverage Choice.