Memo to SF City Hall: Supervise Someone Else

The (well-funded, I am sure) opposition to San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener’s ballot measure to tax soda and other sugary drinks calls itself the Coalition for an Affordable City. Its website features owners of corner markets explaining how the proposed tax would hurt their businesses and expressing their bewilderment at City Hall’s picking on hardworking merchants.

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I agree with every point they make, but there’s a more fundamental problem with the measure. From the moment Wiener came to the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board last November with a group of like-minded earnest folk to tout this scheme, a little voice in the back of my head kept repeating: Don’t you people have anything better to do?

I thought voters elect officials to solve civic problems, not rummage through people’s habits for an excuse to devise a “first city in the nation” nanny tax.

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In that same headline-hunting spirit, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., has introduced the Sugar-Sweetened Beverages Tax Act of 2014, which would levy a 1-cent federal tax on every 4.2 grams of sweetener. She calls it the SWEET Act; the name alone could induce diabetes.

The San Francisco soda tax would levy a 2-cents-per-ounce tax on sodas and other SSBs; that’s the City Hall wonk abbreviation for sugar-sweetened beverages. The idea is to dissuade San Franciscans and tourists from drinking too many soft drinks. Choose Health SF — the pro-tax political committee — warns that in 2010, 32 percent of San Francisco children were obese or overweight. And: “Soda is the largest single source of added sugar in the American diet.” A tax, say boosters, should slim the city’s waistline and, hence, save the city millions of dollars in health costs attributable to sugar-sweetened beverages.

The San Francisco Office of Economic Analysis predicts that the new tax would bring in $35 million to $54 million. After administrative costs, 40 percent of the new revenue would go to the San Francisco Unified School District for nutrition classes and such; 25 percent would go to the Department of Public Health and the Public Utilities Commission for healthful-food initiatives; 25 percent would go to the Recreation and Park Department for sports programs; and 10 percent would go to community-based groups. Thus, representatives of these fields support the measure — a necessary condition, as the measure requires a two-thirds vote to pass.

The city controller recognizes that less-educated and poor populations allocate “a larger proportion of their spending on sugar-sweetened beverages than other groups.”

The city controller also predicts a reduction in soda consumption by up to 31 percent, but with the caveat that consumers might use today’s soda money to buy other high-calorie food and drinks. Ice cream? Beer?

La Follette School of Public Affairs health economist Jason Fletcher researched the evidence and found “large increases in soft drink taxes are unlikely to reduce total caloric intake. The impact of soft drink taxes on the body mass index is small in magnitude and not statistically significant.”

In short: The soda tax would be a regressive measure that probably wouldn’t do much to reduce obesity. But stores and pizza parlors that stand to lose out if consumers change their eating habits should not complain, because the sponsors mean well.

There was a time when no City Hall pol would dare oppose this sort of headline-seeking “first in the nation” nanny bill. No longer. San Francisco supervisors approved the measure for the November ballot by a 6-4 vote. As Chronicle staff writer Heather Knight reported, the four supes who voted no — London Breed, Jane Kim, Katy Tang and Norman Yee — are people of color who represent neighborhoods with many minority voters. You can imagine the talk around their constituents’ kitchen tables.

You cannot walk down Market Street without seeing street people who engage in all manner of unhealthy behaviors. When adults are dysfunctional to the point of being threatening, they get a pass. But if there’s one group City Hall feels it can lecture, levy and scold, it’s fat people who buy Big Gulps.

How did Sin City turn into Sin Tax City? People who drink lots of soda have to be looking at Wiener and thinking that he ought to have better things to do than levy a soda tax that falls disproportionately on poor people and doesn’t yield the promised results. There’s an old saying in the schoolyard: Why don’t you pick on someone your own size?

Email Debra J. Saunders at: [email protected].: 

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