Wiener's soda tax, which the city will be voting on in November, would add a tax of 2-cents-per-ounce to cola and other sugar-fueled beverages (that's 24-cents for a 12 ounce can). The cash collected from the tax would go toward nutritional, health, and wellness programs provided by the city.
For some, the idea of paying more for a frivolous refreshment like a Coke, just because someone else thinks you should be taking better care of your health, is infuriating. For supporters, it’s a form of tough love, and a precautionary measure to counter the high rates of obesity and diabetes in our country.
To get a better feel for arguments on both sides of this topic, including what life under a post-soda-tax S.F. might look like, we spoke with those pushing for the tax and those directly opposing it.
Supervisor Scott Wiener
Wiener tells us the idea for the soda tax was partially inspired by medical research demonstrating sugary beverages' connection to illnesses like obesity, diabetes, and liver disease. Since soda is cheap, doesn’t quell your appetite, and is consumed quickly, Wiener says it’s far too easy to overconsume. And that's problematic for a number of people, especially those in low income communities, where it's sometimes more affordable to purchase soda instead of milk or water.
What do you say to those who say the Soda Tax is basically creating a Nanny State, meaning, it’s overreaching and telling others how to live their lives?
We hear that charge every time the government takes an innovative approach to public health. We heard it when cigarette taxes were created, and raised. They said cigarette taxes were Nanny State, but we’ve seen that cigarette taxes have saved many, many lives by reducing smoking. They said it was Nanny State when we adopted seatbelt laws, but seatbelt laws have saved lives. They said it was Nanny State when we required motorcyclists to wear helmets, and that has saved lives. And I don’t think anyone would say that any of those laws were Nanny State now. Those are common sense approaches to make our community healthier. This is absolutely the same. It’s also about our community as a whole. One-in-three kids born in the year 2000 will develop Type 2 diabetes in their lives. We have to do something to address that issue.
If this passes, how confident are you that we’ll be able to follow the tax money and see it going into health and exercise programs at city schools, recreation centers, et cetera?
Very confident. It’s a California law. When you do a so-called "special tax," what we’re doing, it requires two-thirds vote. Instead of doing what’s called a “general tax,” which goes into the general fund, we’ve raised the hurdle to a two-thirds vote, precisely because we want the funds to go to these programs. We wouldn’t be persuing this if we didn’t have confidence it’d go there. It’s legally required.
If the soda tax passes, what’s the best case scenario you see happening in the coming years?
There’s been a lot of research about the expected decline in consumption for this kind of tax. UCSF predicted we’d see a decline in consumption up to 25%. Our city economist’s analysis was that we’d see a decline in consumption up to 31%. So whether it’s 25% or 31%, or even if it were 15% reduction— lower than anyone’s projecting— that’d be a dramatic improvement to public health. And this will generate somewhere between $35 and $54 million dollars a year, depending on consumption. So that’s $35 to $54 million dollars per year for these programs.
And if it fails?
In the long run, we’re going to win this. We think we have a pretty good shot of winning, although it’s definitely not guaranteed, because we’re going up against a multi-billion dollar industry that’s spending to spread misinformation. But whatever’s happens here, and whatever happens in Berkeley, we’re only moving in a positive direction.
Roger Salazar, spokesman for the Coalition for an Affordable City
The group Salazar represents, Coalition for an Affordable City, is one of the chief opponents of the soda tax, and just so happens to be funded by the American Beverage Association, a Big Soda trade organization. Some of Salazar’s main contentions with the soda tax are that it’s a burden to small businesses and consumers, particularly those with low-incomes, and that the city has enough money to fund health and nutrition programs on its own.
What do you say to someone who might compare this tax proposal as a matter of public safety, like seatbelts or cigarette tax?
That’s hyperbole on their part. This is not the same as those things. If you don’t wear a seatbelt, and you get into an accident, your chances of getting killed or injured are very high. Cigarettes are a known-carcinogen. There’s no dispute or debate about that. To make the argument that sugar-sweetened beverages are on the same level would be to say that pasta is on the same level, because of its high carbohydrates, or that San Francisco’s famous sourdough bread is on the same level, because of its high carbohydrates. I don’t think voters will see those things as equal.
Do you feel like sugar consumption is a problem at all right now, at least as it applies to the obesity epidemic?
There may well be an issue with sugars, overall, but what we’ve seen, in the studies we’ve noticed, is that the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages nationally, and even in San Francisco, is down, while diabetes and obesity continue to go up. From our perspective, it’s misleading to single out sugar-sweetened beverages as a unique contributor to these health issues.
What happens if the soda tax passes?
Restaurants and stores are going to have to pay more for their products, which is going to cut into their very thin margins. It’s going to cause some of them to go out of business. They’ll tell you that themselves. Consumers are going to have to pay more out of their own pockets, when they can least afford it, which will give them less. all around, to spend on other necessities and expenditures in the city.
And if you defeat the soda tax?
Let’s pretend that it’s not tough enough to do business in San Francisco as it is. It’s a tough place to do business with the fees and the taxes that folks have to already pay. Not having an additional tax relieves a burden from those businesses, and makes it a little easier for them to do business in San Francisco. Again, there’s nothing that says the supervisors can’t put funding from their massive budget to fund a nutrition program on their own. They don’t need to tax poor people to fund their programs.
Megan Morris, Nutritionist
Based in San Francisco, Morris specializes in digestive problems and is a big proponent of reducing people’s intake of soda and sugary beverages. She points to UCSF professor Dr. Robert Lustig’s video series as a good educational resource on the negative effects of soda. As for some healthier alternatives from cola, Morris says sparkling water and unsweetened ice tea would be better substitutes.
What are your thoughts on the soda tax?
It’s an extreme measure, but I think it’s an extreme measure that should probably be taken. While it can seem a little bit radical to do it like this, a long time ago, cigarettes were deemed perfectly acceptable, but we know what they can do to your health. Obesity is the biggest problem in America right now. And sugar, in my opinion, is the biggest culprit. For me, there isn’t much of a difference in putting a tax on that. It doesn’t mean people can’t make their own choices, but we’re not creating an environment where people are educated enough to understand the detrimental effects of sugar.
How damaging is soda to nutrition, in general?
A 12-ounce can of soda has, on average, around 39 grams of sugar in it. That is a tremendous amount of sugar. And it’s coming in the more toxic form of fructose, if they use high fructose corn syrup, which I think it’s like 55% to 60% percent fructose, compared to glucose.
The reason that matters is because it breaks down differently in your body. What happens when you have that much fructose is it can convert to fat in the liver. And fat is one of the biggest players in metabolic syndrome, and or insulin resistance, which is a precursor to it. And the same exact thing can happen to kids. So unless you’re running, or training, or doing endurance exercise, there’s no way you can burn off that level of sugar. So there ends up being an excess, along with the natural sugars we eat, like fruits and certain veggies.
That’s without even counting things like cupcakes, and all the other celebratory sugars that come into life. It’s just empty calories in a beverage. There’s no RDA, or Recommended Daily Allowance, for sugars, because it doesn’t exist. It’s virtually void of nutrients.
Do you think making soda more expensive will have any effect on its consumption?
I don’t know, but that’s not my area of expertise. My hope is that it would. I do feel confident it would, if this tax came with a really awesome educational marketing campaign.
If the soda tax passes, what’s the best case scenario you see happening?
That it reduces the soda consumption intake, especially in children. I really do think the best case scenario is to not expect it to happen overnight, and expect people to be like, "Okay, I'll stop drinking soda." But if you’re an everyday soda drinker, maybe make it happen on the weekends. The other half of that is some sort of education.
If it fails, what’s the worst case scenario?
I do think people are getting on board. It’s growing all over the country and the world. These big companies, Coca-Cola, and et cetera, that own all these sodas, they’re getting hit with a rise in knowledge. So my hope there would be that they somehow get on board and make better products.
Taylor Peck, co-owner of The Fizzery
If you’re thinking someone who co-owns a business devoted to selling soda would be pissed about a proposed soda tax, you’d be right. Peck estimates that roughly 85% of The Fizzary’s products would be affected, and says taxing soda will have a huge ripple effect on both consumers and small businesses, driving up prices and perhaps leading to other food & beverage taxes. He hypothesizes that the tax might even force bars and stores to skirt local laws to save money, and head out-of-city to purchase their soda.
How do you think the soda tax would would affect your business?
I’m not going to be a nihilist and say we’d completely disappear, because we’re on the higher end of the beverage spectrum. We’re charging $2 for a 12-ounce bottle. The people that will be most affected are the folks who are trying to sell Safeway 12-packs for $3. They’re going to be affected a lot swifter than we are. Like I said, our margins are razor thin after expenses.
What do you think about the health concerns of soda?
You could get diabetes faster off unfiltered apple juice than you can from our soda. Going back 100 years, they used to claim that carbonated drinks would cause insanity. And they weren’t even talking about sweetened drinks, they were talking about seltzers. At one point, they thought seltzers could cure scurvy, so they put seltzers on all ships because it was such a miracle cure.
Getting caught up in the nuances of the immediate science sometimes drives me up a wall. If I sat down and drank nothing but Dr. Pepper between now and the end of time, I’d have pretty severe sugar issues, and probably teeth that weren’t looking perfect, but that’s to be said about a lot of things. I do think curbing consumption is probably a great idea, and that comes through the conversation we’re all having.
Best case scenario if the soda tax passes?
We get a few months of free press out of it before we have this thing imposed upon us. Best case scenario, it puts some of the bigger companies at more of a disadvantage than us, and makes us look less unreasonable. Even though our already unreasonable prices are already being pushed higher.
And worst case?
A laboring stigma on specifically targeted drinks that are, in my opinion, arbitrary, thus an increased public awareness of one category of food products, that isn’t totally sound in its science, because it then drives people over to another category. And then we do the cat-and-mouse, chasing other food products, including those, and so I don’t want to see a tax on unfiltered apple juice, even though it’s worse than our soda.
Kevin Smith is an Oakland-based writer and you can read his work here.