Tax Sugary Soda? A Debate With Scott Wiener

Scott Wiener and Joel Engardio

Scott Wiener and Joel Engardio

By Joel P. Engardio

When I talked to Supervisor Scott Wiener about debating his proposed tax on sugary beverages, there was a lot we agreed on.

For example: Americans drink too much high-calorie soda, which contributes to our obesity epidemic and rising health care costs; the beverage industry profits from unhealthy products (nine teaspoons of sugar in one can!) linked to illnesses that drain productivity and public resources; and it’s shocking how many kids are getting diabetes.

So what’s the debate? We both believe soda is toxic, but we differ on how to persuade people to drink less.

Wiener wants to tax distributors of sugary beverages (not just soda) 2 cents per ounce, then use the proceeds to fund nutrition and physical activity programs in schools and parks. The extra cost of the drinks would almost certainly be passed on to consumers.

I think it would be more effective to fund an education campaign through philanthropy, using celebrities and cartoon heroes to reach all ages. I trust that once parents understand how harmful soda is, they won’t want to drink it or give it to their children.

I question the tax route because government tends to waste money. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency has a huge budget and Muni still does not run on time. We’re paying extra to replace bad bolts on the new Bay Bridge.

How do we know the revenue from a sugary beverage tax won't be squandered through inefficiency, corruption or bureaucracy?

“I don't think it's accurate to claim that all government expenditures are wasteful,” Wiener said. “Our public schools are improving, and increased funding is a big reason. The programs this tax will fund are critically important, and we know how to do them well.”

I’m uncomfortable with government using behavior taxes to micromanage the lives of individuals. I believe people are capable of making healthy choices if given access to good information. I know we're only talking about sweetened beverages, but liberty is lost in small drips.

“We're not proposing to ban anything here,” Wiener said. “This is no different than creating tobacco taxes, which helped reduce smoking and generated funding for important health programs. People can and will continue to make decisions for themselves and their families.”

That means people could just go outside The City to buy these beverages and avoid the extra tax.

“I doubt that many people will drive out of San Francisco to avoid a two-pennies-per-ounce soda tax,” Wiener said. “It may cost them more in time and gas than the actual tax.”

So if the tax isn’t high enough to motivate creative money-saving schemes, maybe it’s too low for anyone to change their drinking behavior. An extra quarter for a can of soda doesn’t come close to what a pack of cigarettes costs.

“If a 64-ounce big gulp -- with more than 40 teaspoons of sugar -- costs $1.28 more, consumption will go down,” Wiener said. “UCSF research shows that a one-penny-per-ounce tax will reduce consumption of sugary beverages by about 10 percent. Our two-penny tax aims to double those results, while generating $31 million annually.”

But it sounds like a Catch-22. The tax-funded programs depend on people to continue buying enough soda to generate the $31 million needed to tell them to stop drinking it.

“If consumption drops even more than we project, and our tax revenue goes down, that's a very good problem to have,” Wiener said. “Just as having tobacco taxes go down to zero because people stop smoking would be a great problem to have.”

Still, I worry what happens to the bureaucracies created because of the tax. Government agencies rarely disband when they’re no longer needed. They usually morph into something else requiring a new revenue source.

My friends and I rarely buy sugary drinks. This tax won’t affect us. The people who know least about nutrition and still drink soda will pay the most. Likely, they are poor. I don’t think that’s fair. I’d rather see wealthy Whole Foods customers give a portion of their purchase to fund nutrition programs for the poor.

“Diabetes, liver damage and obesity -- which disproportionately impact low-income communities -- are much bigger regressive taxes than a sugary beverage tax,” Wiener said. “The beverage industry has targeted these low-income communities, creating a health epidemic. It would be irresponsible for us to ignore that problem.”

I completely agree. But a tax wasn’t needed to change my behavior when I voluntarily stopped drinking sugar-laden beverages on a regular basis years ago. Learning about nutrition did the trick, and I believe everyone has the capacity to make healthy choices if empowered with information.

So what’s the best way cover the cost of giving people that information?

I think everyone could help pay through a general sales or residence tax, if voters felt it was important to use some of that revenue to educate soda drinkers. Or we could call on philanthropy.

Wiener seeks a more direct route.

“There's a long and positive history of government improving public health, including tobacco taxes and mandatory seatbelt laws,” Wiener said. “Sugary beverages account for nearly half the sugar consumed by Americans. We have a responsibility to address the problems created by this intensely unhealthy product.”

Also published in San Francisco Examiner February 2, 2014

PoliticsJoel Engardio