‘Big Soda’ set to outspend foes over tax

Coke versus Pepsi has nothing on this.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors is still cobbling together details of a proposed ballot measure to tax sodas and other sugary drinks, and voters won’t have their say for another 11 months.

But the American Beverage Association is already gearing up for a fight, and supporters of the tax say they’re expecting what they call “Big Soda” (in the vein of Big Oil and Big Tobacco) to spend millions or even tens of millions of dollars to quash their effort.

The beverage association and other food industry groups spent $2.5 million and $1.3 million, respectively, to defeat soda taxes in Richmond and El Monte (Los Angeles County) last year. Voters rejected both measures.

San Francisco voters tend to be more liberal than their counterparts around California and have regularly voted in favor of taxes of all sorts. Also, our cutting-edge city draws a lot of media attention and often sets the agenda for the rest of the country. Remember where same-sex marriage, universal health care and plastic bag bans got their starts?

That’s why the soda industry wants to see the San Francisco measure go the way of New Coke.

“There’s no question that the American soft drink industry is going to oppose taxes like the one proposed by Supervisors Wiener and Mar just as they have in other communities that have voted them down,” said Chuck Finnie, spokesman for the beverage association.

He wouldn’t say how much the association is ready to spend, but Supervisors Scott Wiener and Eric Mar, the authors of two soda tax proposals that are being merged, expect it to be a huge amount. Mar said he anticipates “the most ever spent to try to defeat a local ordinance.”

Though details are still being ironed out, the merged measure would levy a 2-cents-per-ounce tax on distributors of soda and other sugary drinks.

Finnie pointed out several problems with the local measure, including discrepancies in Mar’s measure, which taxes canned and bottled sodas, but not fountain drinks like those served at fast-food restaurants and movie theaters. And Wiener’s would tax bottled coffee drinks with added sugar but not, for example, the sugary Frappuccinos laden with whipped cream that Starbucks baristas prepare.

Finnie also pointed out that the supervisors seem to be ignoring a study conducted by the San Francisco Department of Public Health in 2o09 after then-Mayor Gavin Newsom proposed a similar soda fee. The study found it would not raise enough money to make the administrative costs worth it, and Newsom dropped the plan.

Mar countered that the health department backs the new soda tax idea, which is structured differently than Newsom’s was, and that the former mayor dropped the plan when he decided to run for governor.

Finnie also said UCSF researchers backing the San Francisco soda tax are biased because they have been longtime crusaders against added sugar in food and drinks.

That made Wiener froth like a shaken bottle of soda being opened.

“I seem to recall the tobacco industry attacking the scientists who showed that cigarettes are bad for you, and the oil industry attacking the scientists who research global warming,” he said. “When it comes to the credibility on public health in San Francisco, I’ll take UCSF over the beverage industry any day of the week.”

Like juicy political fights? The next 11 months will be your cup of tea — unsweetened, of course.