S.F., Oakland, Albany voters pass soda tax

Reprinted from the San Francisco Chronicle (11/8/2016)

Three Bay Area cities on Tuesday became among the first in the country to levy a tax on sodas and other sugary drinks in an effort to help stanch the nation’s diabetes and obesity epidemics.

In San Francisco, Proposition V was winning 62 to 38 percent, with all but two precincts reporting and some provisional ballots outstanding. Oakland’s Measure HH was ahead 62 to 38 percent with 60 percent of precincts reporting, and in Albany, Measure 01 was winning, 71 to 29 percent with 76 percent of precincts reporting.

In 2014, Berkeley became the first city in the country to levy a soda tax, and Philadelphia became the second in June. Regardless of the outcome of the Bay Area races, supporters expected other cities in the U.S. and elsewhere to follow suit.

John Maa, a doctor and secretary of the San Francisco Medical Society and a major supporter of soda taxes, said the mere presence of the measures on the ballot was a victory.

“Not only does it signify the movement is gathering energy, but it also raises awareness,” he said. “As we’ve seen in Berkeley, every time these efforts win, it leads to a reduction in soda consumption and, most importantly, it makes the general public aware of the health hazards of sugar-sweetened beverages.”

Joe Arellano, a spokesman for the campaigns to defeat the local measures, called soda taxes “bad public policy.” Such taxes are regressive, he said, and unlikely to lower consumption of sugary drinks.

“It’s not the correct way to drive change,” Arellano said.

The American Beverage Association, which represents scores of beverage companies, spent tens of millions of dollars in an effort to defeat the taxes. In San Francisco alone, its spending had reached $21.3 million by late last week. That was more than double the previous record spent on a single ballot measure in the city — the soda industry spent about $10 million to defeat another soda tax measure in 2014, and Pacific Gas and Electric Co. spent the same amount to defeat a public power measure in 2008.

This was the first time a soda tax appeared on the Oakland or Albany ballots. The 2014 San Francisco proposal was a two-cent-per-ounce tax, and its revenue was specified for children’s physical education and nutrition programs. Because its funds were earmarked for a specific purpose, it needed two-thirds voter support to pass. It received 55 percent.

The three cities this time backed measures that didn’t specify where the money would go, meaning they needed only a simple majority. The soda industry said the measures were cynical attempts to fill already bulging city coffers, but backers of the taxes vowed to use the proceeds for health-related purposes, even if that wasn’t written into the measures.

That was the same strategy used successfully by Berkeley two years ago. The city created a nine-member panel to advise the City Council on how to spend soda-tax proceeds, which have totaled $2 million to date.

Of that, 42.5 percent has gone to Berkeley public schools for cooking, gardening and nutrition programs. Another 42.5 percent has gone to community groups that work on health issues. The rest has gone to fund the administration of the program.

The soda industry slammed the measures on Tuesday’s ballot for being “a grocery tax” and buffeted the Bay Area with TV and radio ads and campaign mailers. The industry argued that grocers would raise the prices of numerous products to offset the tax rather than put a big price increase on soda.

A UC Berkeley study and a separate one by the Pacific Health Institute looked at how Berkeley grocers have handled that city’s soda tax and found no evidence that products other than beverages have gotten more expensive. Studies also found Berkeley residents are buying fewer sugary drinks than they did before passage of the soda tax.

The campaigns to defeat the tax said they were backed by 1,000 small businesses, grocers and restaurants whose proprietors feared anything that would make products more expensive in the already pricey Bay Area.