Richmond’s sugary beverage tax lost big, how's SF different?

A table shows how much sugar is in your soda, laid out at the kickoff campaign party for San Francisco's sugary beverage tax, Saturday.
Photo by Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

What’s old is new again, the saying goes.

And the saying definitely applies to the hotly followed sugary beverage tax resolution, introduced at today’s Board of Supervisors meeting. 

The two cents per-ounce tax on sugary beverages would be levied at the point of distribution, with the ultimate goal of reducing the consumption of sodas and other sugary drinks to combat obesity in San Francisco. The tax, sponsored by Supervisors Scott Wiener, Eric Mar, Malia Cohen John Avalos and David Chiu, is similar to a resolution made two years ago in Richmond, CA. 

But Richmond ultimately voted down Measure N by 66 percent, the voters overwhelmingly saying “no” to the tax increase.

Some of the players in San Francisco’s sugar war are the same as those in Richmond.

In 2012, the American Beverage Association hired Chuck Finnie of San Francisco public relations group BMWL and Partners. The association funded the “Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes,” which reached out to Latino communities and others, saying it was a tax on the poor. 

Now Finnie is back as spokesperson for Stop Unfair Beverage Taxes -- Coalition for an Affordable City, here in San Francisco. Its website is strewn with exclamations, sounding the warning knell of doom: “A 2 cent per-ounce tax… would add $0.40 to the cost of bottle of soda and nearly $3.00 to the cost of a 12-pack!” 

One of the taxes’ sponsors, Supervisor Malia Cohen, disagrees with that rationale.

“It’s a shallow argument, that it’s a regressive tax on poor people. At first blush yes you could say that,” she said. “But a true cost benefit analysis, what is it costing poor people? Literally it’s costing them their lives.”

Some of the articles on the coalition’s media page have little to do with beverages, with one discussing San Francisco as one of “America’s 5 Last-Affordable Housing Markets.” 

Go figure: they’re playing off of our fears. 

Finnie sent a PDF highlighting a coalition of 720 businesses, playing up the local angle. But on the bottom of their website is the tagline “Paid for by the American Beverage Association.”

“They’ve started early with bogus community groups,” Sup. Mar told us. And this wouldn’t be their first rodeo. 

In Richmond the beverage association spent $2.6 million to combat Measure N, according to campaign filings. That’s driven Sups. Wiener and Mar to get into hustle-mode to raise more money. 

“The were the canary, they went first,” Wiener told the Guardian, in a visit to our offices to speak about the measure. “We’ve learned you can’t do a $40,000 campaign against an opponent like the beverage industry.”

Jeff Ritterman, a cardiologist and former Richmond City Council member, was a lead proponent of the Measure N campaign in 2012. He’s another actor from that campaign that’s back now too, helping the supervisors craft their new strategy.

Last time around they were outspent, Ritterman admits. But campaign money is only one way San Francisco is taking a different tack in the upcoming sugar battle.


Cardiologist and former Richmond City Council member Jeff Ritterman, at the San Francisco sugary beverage tax campaign kickoff party Saturday.

The supervisors are also proposing to dedicate the estimated $30 million in revenue that the tax will generate to a specific purpose. The funding would be divided between the SFUSD, the Department of Public Health and the Recreation and Park Department for a mix of outdoor activities and nutrition education. In contrast, Measure N left allocation of new funding open-ended.

Ritterman told us that not identifying what the taxes on sugar would be used for was one of Richmond’s major missteps. Opponents honed in on it like an open wound and hammered away. 

In Richmond, “they told people on the telephone I’d use it for trips around the world. It got as crazy as that,” Ritterman said. “You get more support when you show you’ll use it for children’s health and physical activity.”

Well hey, since the use of tax funds collected were a major concern for Finnie’s group last time around, now that it’s fixed he should be happy, right?

“No,” he told the Guardian, flatly. “We disagree that singling out sugar sweetened beverages for special taxation has any merit whatsoever.” 

Listen to an audio interview with Jeff Ritterman, as he answers the question "what's different about San Francisco's sugary beverage tax campaign?"

We went on a bit of a tangent, asking the next obvious question -- should government have a role in pricing for sugary beverages at all? No, Finnie said. But what about corn subsidies, leading to cheaply produced high-fructose corn syrup and even cheaper sugary drinks in the first place?

“I’m happy to talk about the proposed tax here in San Francisco,” Finnie said. “You’re getting into a realm that I don’t know anything about.” 

What Finnie does know about is creating a public relations maelstrom, and he won in Richmond on the beverage association’s behalf. 

But San Francisco supervisors are seeking to be more strategic than Richmond in this year’s sugar war, raising more money, crafting the legislation more specifically, and building a broader coalition. So far, faith-based groups, pediatricians, nurses, the teachers union, the school district and others have backed the tax measure.

We’ll see if the supervisors can win the day in November.