Two Bay Area cities are the latest battlegrounds in the soda wars

Nov 3, 2014


Soda is so tasty, but so not good for you. One can of coke has about 10 teaspoons of sugar, and too much sugar leads to obesity, diabetes and a host of other health problems.

Widespread diabetes compelled Mexico to pass a national tax on sugary soft drinks last year, but in the U.S. it has yet to happen. That may change tomorrow, if Berkeley or San Francisco passes respective measures that would levy taxes on distributors of sugar-sweetened beverages.

Those taxes would amount to one-cent-per-ounce in Berkeley, and two-cents-per-ounce in San Francisco. Proponents say the taxes would curb soda consumption and make people healthier. Opponents argue that they unfairly target low-income earners living in food deserts.

These taxes, though, are about more than soft drinks. They would apply to all kinds of sugary beverages, including sweetened juices and coconut waters. But the main target is soda. And the main opponent is the American Beverage Association, the lobbying arm of big corporations like Coca-Cola and Pepsi.

In San Francisco, the American Beverage Association has spent more than $9 million fighting Proposition E. Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, who now teaches public policy at UC Berkeley, says that money has a big influence on politics.

“There are 90 separate cities, municipalities, and states that have tried to tax sugared soft drinks,” he says. “And they've all failed because the [National] Beverage Association is huge and powerful.”

Reich thinks the Bay Area could be the last battleground for a soda tax; that if it can’t pass in two of the most progressive cities in the country, it probably won’t pass anywhere.

“I think the soda wars that we are now engaged in represent not just the issue of sugary soft drinks and the health of our children and ourselves, it also represents a larger issue,” Reich says. “And that is big companies, large profit-making corporations selling things that are not healthy, trying to convince people that they shouldn't act to protect themselves.”

Reich is, obviously, in favor of taxing soda. He says it will reduce soda drinking like taxing cigarettes reduced smoking.

To be clear, this isn’t a point-of-sale tax. Beverage distributors will pay the tax, and it’s up to businesses to decide how they want to adjust their prices. Reich thinks they won’t really feel it.

“Most of these stores are selling things other than sugared soft drinks. They're not dependent on sugared soft drinks to make a living. Nobody's dependent on tobacco sales, at least not any longer, to make a living,” Reich says. But, he adds, businesses will save money because they will pay less into Medicare and Medicaid if America curbs its obesity epidemic.

Berkeley’s Measure D, which would tax sugared drinks at a penny-an-ounce, could save billions of dollars, when projected nationally, by cutting health and cost burdens of diabetes, according to UCSF researchers. They say the tax could reduce soda consumption by 10 to 15 percent over a decade. On the other hand, a University of Wisconsin-Madison study indicated that a soda tax would do little to decrease obesity.

But opponents say a sugar-sweetened beverage tax, which applies to almost any drink with added sugar, will disproportionately target low-income families, because in some cases sodas and juices with added sugar are all that’s available to them.

“We know well there are food deserts in our city,” says Angeles Roy, regional field director of the ‘No on E’ campaign. “You can't find grocery stores in many parts of the Bayview, Hunters Point, the Tenderloin, Outer Mission, and that is actually a problem. Sugary beverages are not.”

Roy and canvasser Robert Fay are making the rounds, knocking on doors in San Francisco’s Glen Park neighborhood. Resident Jacquelyn Serrano already knows how she’s voting.

“We're very upset about taxes because we got to pay our fair share around here. I understand that, but parents need to take control. As a grandparent you need to take control of your children, and what they can eat ,and what they can't eat. But why should we have to pay taxes on something that is the responsibility of the parents?” Serrano says.

People like Serrano make a canvasser’s job easy. But more than one-third of San Francisco voters will have to say no to the tax-measure in order to defeat it.

That tax is expected to generate $35 to $54 million a year for nutrition classes and physical education. But many residents are still weighing its merits.

It’s a complex issue. The health risks associated with sugar consumption are undisputed by either side. But is a tax the best way to reduce soda consumption? If voters decide yes, tomorrow, it could be just the beginning of a much longer war.