Will the Bay Area Tax Soda?

Voters are considering new taxes on sugary beverages in San Francisco and Berkeley.

(Photo: Tim Macpherson/Getty Images)

Oct 6, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Despite the cries of meritocracy, efforts to Uber-ize public services, and anti–higher ed manifestos emanating from the Bay Area, San Francisco and Berkeley are still good for a bit of old-fashioned liberal politics. Both Bay Area cities are considering propositions that would slap new taxes on soda in the November election. If the ballot measures pass, the two cities would share the distinction of being the first local governments (outside a reservation) to put a cost on the damage to public health caused by American’s high soda consumption.

The twin campaigns have been ongoing for months now, but with the vote less than a month away, the San Francisco Chronicle endorsed Proposition E, S.F.’s ballot measure. In 2012, the paper opposed Richmond, Calif.’s soda-tax measure, which voters rejected. The editorial board writes, in typical tech-speak, that “the soda tax might disrupt what Supervisor Scott Wiener rightly described as ‘a business model built on overconsumption.’ ”

The San Francisco proposal would levy a two-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks, resulting in an estimated $30 million annually that would be spent on nutrition and physical education programs. In Berkeley, Measure D’s one-cent-per-ounce tax is expected to raise between $1 million and $3 million in revenue for the city’s General Fund. In San Francisco, the proposition needs a two-thirds majority to pass, whereas the Berkeley measure only requires a simple majority.

In May, a poll showed that 54 percent of San Francisco voters supported Proposition E. A poll conducted in Berkeley this spring found that a majority of Berkeley voters supported Measure D, while between 28 percent and 38 percent opposed it. Former labor secretary and UC Berkeley economics professor Robert Reich wrote in a recent op-ed, “if a soda tax can’t pass in the most progressive city in America, it can’t pass anywhere.”

“Big soda knows that,” he continued, “which is why it’s determined to kill it here.”

The industry is putting up quite a fight, spending a total of $2 million on both sides of the San Francisco Bay, and they’re making an argument that may resonate with the liberal tendencies of the region: that the taxes would put an undue burden on poor residents. Soda does offer plenty of cheap calories, and combined with a lack of access to more nutritious food options in neighborhoods underserved by retailers—certainly more of a concern in San Francisco—it does appear that a tax would affect those least able to afford it. According to a 2013 Gallup poll, 45 percent of Americans who make less than $30,000 annually say they drink regular diet soda, as do 46 percent of nonwhites. Both demographic groups are the most likely to be obese. The same poll found that 32 percent of adults, overall, drink regular soda.

But as the Chronicle notes, the notion that Proposition E is a regressive tax that would harm low-income residents has not been received well by Supervisor Malia Cohen, who represents some the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

“This [Type 2 diabetes] is a regressive disease” was her response.