Study reignites push for soda fee

Buying a soda or other sugary drink in San Francisco will cost you more if Mayor Gavin Newsom has his way.

As a nationwide debate rages about taxing soft drinks and a new health study says sodas are linked to obesity, Newsom said Thursday that he is prepared to push legislation that would impose a fee on sugary drinks sold in The City by large retailers.

The mayor first pitched the fee idea in 2007, but it fizzled due to legal restrictions. Under state law, new taxes require voter approval.

Local governments, however, can charge a fee for programs if they can prove there’s a cause-and-effect link.

To gather that evidence, Newsom ordered the Health Department to launch a two-year study on the subject. The study is now complete, Newsom said, but has not been released.

Since sweetened drinks can be linked to obesity, and since obesity-related illnesses cost The City and state billions of dollars a year, large stores such as Safeway should pay a fee to offset those soaring medical costs, Newsom said.

The amount of the proposed fee will not be released until legislation is formally introduced, Mayor’s Office spokesman Nathan Ballard said.

Newsom said the fee would only add “a few million” dollars annually to city coffers, but it’s “the right thing to do” and would help tackle costly problems with obesity and other medical conditions.

The renewed push by Newsom comes as UCLA researchers on Thursday released a report showing that adults who consume at least one soda daily are 27 percent more likely to be overweight. Also, 41 percent of children between ages 2 and 11 and 62 percent between 12 and 17 are drinking at least that amount.

“Not enough teens know about the health and dietary risks of drinking huge quantities of what is essentially liquid sugar,” said Dr. Susan H. Babey, the study’s lead author.

The UCLA report helped reignite soda-fee legislation in San Francisco.

“The study … got my staff to say, ‘You know what, maybe the time is right now,’” Newsom said. “We now have legislation and a city attorney’s opinion on how to [impose a fee in San Francisco].”

It won’t be easy, however. City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s report to the mayor cautioned that the legislation would spark legal action.

The mayor said he expects California’s biggest retailers to “bring their lobbying efforts to the floor, like they did with our plastic bag ban.”

Newsom hopes that businesses tagged with the fee would force companies that supply them with  sweetened drinks to pay more for distribution.

Christina Goette, senior health program planner for The City’s Health Department, said she sees fees less as a revenue maker for San Francisco and more of a deterrent for youths who want to purchase sugary drinks.

“When they talk about taxing sodas or sweetened beverages, you take a look at the tobacco model,” Goette said. “It became more expensive for children, it was harder for kids to afford them. And if it becomes less available, it becomes harder to do.”

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