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Two Big Votes come to the Bay Area in November – Understanding the Soda Tax

Published: 10/13/14
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By Kelly Close

Twitter summary: The Bay Area is offering voters a chance to create a soda tax to fund public health programs

Next month, the residents in San Francisco and Berkeley will vote on ballot measures that, if successful, will create the first soda taxes in our country aimed specifically at improving public health – the proponents’ goal is to cut soda consumption and attack a major source of empty calories that is associated with obesity and type 2 diabetes. The proposed taxes in the Bay Area won’t ban the sale of any soda but will increase the price tag: in San Francisco, it will cost an extra quarter for a 12-ounce can of soda (not including diet soda), about 40 cents more for a 20-ounce bottle, about $1.35 more for a two-liter bottle, and so on (Berkeley’s increases would be a little less than that). But what makes the San Francisco and Berkeley plans unusual is that the tax revenue, estimated to be around $30 million annually, will go toward funding citywide recreation and nutrition programs, paying for new drinking fountains and water bottle filling stations, and helping people get better access to healthy food. If it works as planned, that would be something to celebrate – a two-pronged approach to discourage bad choices and encourage healthy alternatives.

However, at this stage, it’s certainly true that soda taxes will not necessarily reduce type 2 diabetes and obesity. While to some extent, there is an analogy here to taxing cigarettes, which produced a marked decrease in smoking rates, it’s certainly not exactly the same thing. People can more easily find alternative sources of sugar than they can find alternative sources of nicotine – put differently, a tax on cigarettes leaves people with two options (pay more or stop smoking), while a soda tax could simply shift consumption to other sources of calories. The beverage companies are pouring millions of dollars into the effort to defeat these ballot measures, as they did in New York and in other places.

I dream about those millions of dollars’ worth of extra tax revenue that can be used on real, targeted public health initiatives. Maybe charging an extra quarter for a can of soda isn’t going to move the needle in a big way with each individual, but raising $30 million to fund nutritional programs, improve public spaces, and provide access to healthy foods might be an important step. Currently, an estimated 32% of children and adolescents in San Francisco are overweight or obese. This is clearly a crisis. And to think of the far-reaching impact our Bay Area could have …

Clearly, these soda taxes aren’t the final word on this issue – the obesity epidemic is far too complex and deep-rooted. But these proposed taxes – if approved -- do represent a bold statement from San Francisco and Berkeley: “Obesity is not okay, and we are doing something about it.” 

very best,

Kelly L. Close

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