Soda tax proposed for San Francisco

Getty Images file photo | Clip artSupervisor Scott Wiener is proposing a tax on soda and other sugary drinks.

San Francisco is entering the soda wars.

A tax of 2 cents per ounce could be levied on sodas, energy drinks and other sugary nonalcoholic beverages under a proposal to be unveiled today by Supervisor Scott Wiener.

If approved for the ballot and ratified by two-thirds of voters in November 2014, San Francisco would become the first city in the nation to collect cash on the sale of soda, energy drinks, sports drinks and any other drink with added sugar that is 12 ounces or larger and contains more than 25 calories. The proposal would also officially deem them hazardous to citizens' health.

“We tax tobacco, we tax alcohol — we tax items that have negative health effects on people,” Wiener said Monday. “Sugary beverages are not just empty calories — these are products that give people diabetes.”

The levy — about 24 cents per 12-ounce can of soda — could generate as much as $31 million a year for nutrition, exercise and health programs aimed at The City's children, one-third of whom are overweight or obese.

The idea of charging soda sellers a fee in San Francisco was proposed as early as 2007 by then-Mayor Gavin Newsom.

Wiener's tax, in the works for “most of the year,” would be levied on the distributors that bring to The City either sugar-sweetened beverages or the powder or concentrate used to make the drinks.

Such a tax could also discourage by up to 10 percent consumption of sugar-laden beverages, which are “incredibly cheap,” Wiener said, and which health officials see as one of the leading causes of obesity and diabetes.

The proposal will also almost certainly spark a strong response from the beverage industry, which spent heavily last year to defeat similar efforts in Richmond, El Monte and New York City.

Richmond's effort to impose a 1-cent-per-ounce tax was rejected by voters by a 2-to-1 margin after the American Beverage Association spent more than $2.6 million to defeat it.

Soda taxes are “unnecessary, wasteful distractions from serious policymaking,” said San Francisco-based political consultant Chuck Finnie, who worked on the campaign to defeat Richmond's tax.

A push to ban the sale of sodas larger than 16 ounces passed in New York, only to be struck down by a judge right before it was to take effect.

San Francisco is internationally famous for laws that aim to alter social behavior, including a ban on toys accompanying fast-food meals aimed at children and a sweeping ban on plastic bags.

Other efforts that involve taxing “sinful” behavior have proved tougher sells. A local fee of a nickel per alcoholic drink — which would have funded treatment for problem drinkers — was approved by the Board of Supervisors in 2010 only to be vetoed by Newsom.

A state law that would have raised the tax on cigarettes by $1 per pack was shot down last year after the tobacco industry spent about $47 million in opposition.

A majority of the Board of Supervisors would need to approve the soda proposal for it to be placed on the ballot.

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