The budget committee of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors is holding a hearing at 1pm today (April 16) on a proposal to put a 2 cents per ounce sweetened beverage tax on the November ballot. Meanwhile, a front group for the American Beverage Association, called the Coalition for an Affordable City, has fast-talking operatives out in force trying to convince small business owners that a soda tax will deliver an enormous, possibly fatal, blow to their bottom line. No doubt some of these folks will turn up at today’s hearing to deliver emotional testimony mirroring Big Soda’s fearful tale of how a soda tax will guarantee death to small business.
But since no city in the country has passed the kind of tax proposed for SF, how do Big Soda’s paid operatives know what the result will be for small businesses? Simple answer – they don’t. It’s just a scare tactic.
If Big Soda’s minions told the truth about the proposed tax – that it will raise an estimated $31 million annually to pay for healthy food access, nutrition education, and more places to be physically active for all of SF’s citizens – no one would join their crusade to kill the tax.
I wondered why that “Gotta sell soft drinks to survive” argument sounded so familiar, and then I remembered. It’s exactly what a former SFUSD student nutrition director claimed when she wailed to our health-conscious Board of Education over a decade ago that if she were forced to stop selling soda and sugary drinks as “competitive foods” at lunchtime, her school meal program budget would take a half million dollar hit.
That did sound disastrous – until a savvy school board member pointed out that her Doomsday scenario wouldn’t happen because students who could no longer buy sugary beverages would simply buy the other drinks that were still offered.
And that’s exactly what happened. After SFUSD removed all beverages except water, milk and 100% fruit juice from the schools, students continued to buy the drinks that were available, even though those drinks were priced higher than the sugary beverages they replaced. Far from punching a hole in the student nutrition budget, revenues increased, and the school nutrition program deficit shrank.
Hardly the Doomsday scenario that the nutrition director was anticipating, but that’s what can happen when people make assumptions based on fear rather than fact.
Unlike the sales tax that many states impose on soft drinks, which is not reflected in the shelf price, and is applied at the cash register, the 2 cents per ounce tax proposed for SF is an excise tax levied on the distributors of the drinks. Thus, the higher cost is already included by the time the drinks appear on store shelves or restaurant menus.
When SF becomes the first city in the country to pass a tax on sugar sweetened beverages, people won’t stop buying drinks; they will simply adapt their purchasing to changing circumstances. Consumers who typically stop by the corner store to pick up a drink will continue to do so; those who are concerned about the higher shelf price of their favorite full sugar soft drink will just choose something cheaper, like a lower calorie iced tea, or diet soda, or even water.
People won’t stop going to restaurants just because they might be charged more for a Coke. When prices for a few menu items go up, customers dining on a budget just make different choices that fit their wallet.
Those consumers who do choose to stick with their preferred sugary drink and pay a higher price can feel good about the fact that revenue from the tax, which drove up their purchase price, is guaranteed to be used for new programs to improve health for every SF citizen, but especially our youth.
These programs will include, but not be limited to, nutrition education, healthy food, and better physical education in schools; healthy food access initiatives, drinking fountains and water bottle filling stations, oral health services, chronic disease prevention, and public education campaigns throughout the City; and recreation centers, organized sports, athletic programming, and grants to community-based organizations supporting physical activity, healthy food access, and public outreach in every neighborhood.
Nutrition education for kids, and also for the adults who shape their earliest eating patterns? Teaching people how to cook with whole foods instead of heating up processed crap? More access to healthy food, especially in low income neighborhoods, where traditionally it is easy to buy chips and soda but hard to find a pear or a bunch of broccoli? More safe places for people to exercise and be physically active? Better food in schools? Seriously, what’s not to like?
It’s easy to see how low income communities and children will be the primary beneficiaries. For those struggling to get by in this expensive city, better access to healthy food and free, safe places to get exercise are a huge win. Kids learning about how to make smart nutrition choices, and having an array of convenient, fun opportunities to be physically active right in their own neighborhoods, are the biggest winners, as they will be building healthy habits to last them a lifetime.
The soft drink industry needs to move into the 21st century. We can no longer ignore the epidemic of poor health outcomes linked to sugary beverage consumption, including diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, metabolic syndrome, fatty liver disease, higher risk of stroke, and other ailments.
It is just as easy to manufacture and sell low sugar beverages as it is to sell the health-destroying sugar water that some doctors have started referring to as “liquid diabetes.”
It is particularly heartless of Big Soda to terrify small mom and pop business owners, preying on their understandable confusion over what a soda tax might mean for their sales. Since no city has implemented such a tax, no one knows for sure what the sales impact will be for the neighborhood corner market.
But it stands to reason that people don’t stop being thirsty just because of a soda tax, and thirsty people buy drinks. The soda tax just makes it more likely they will choose something healthier than liquid diabetes.
Read other articles in the Soda Tax Myths series:
More on debunking soda tax myths.
Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at PEACHSF.org. Follow her on Twitter @nestwife, or read more than 140 characters of her writing in her complete archive.Filed under: Archive