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. 


SF is full of affluent people who drink guava juice or wheetgrass juice or fair trade coffee or fine wines or artisnal bottled water.

So they care less if soda is taxed because a soda tax, like tobacco tax and the lottery, is a tax on poor stupid fat people.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 04, 2014 @ 5:44 pm

Our progressives want to coerce the citizens who they claim to speak for to act right, while proclaiming these same citizens are too stupid to think for themselves.

Not agreeing with invasive government is being a flunky for the soda overlords, not agreeing with the invasive government around gross naked dudes is standing up to the man.

Posted by guest on Feb. 04, 2014 @ 6:46 pm

Scott Weiner and Malia Cohen are not progressive.

I, on the hand, am. I'd vote against it. It's stupid.

On the other hand, if the trolls piss me off enough, I'll vote yes just to spite them.

Posted by Greg on Feb. 04, 2014 @ 7:11 pm

Two cents doesn't even make it worth getting worked up over.

Posted by marcos on Feb. 04, 2014 @ 7:52 pm

Two cents per ounce, marcos.

Look, this doesn't affect me one bit. Nobody in my family drinks soda. Not a drop. We're lucky that we just don't like the stuff. But this is a huge, regressive sales tax that hits hardest for the poor.

As a progressive, my philosophy is basically that government should be there for people when they need and want it, and leave them the hell alone when they don't. We all do stupid/unhealthy/dangerous things, but we only punish the stupid/unhealthy/dangerous things done by people with not a lot of political power. A much less hypocritical approach would be to acknowledge that we all do something stupid/unhealthy/dangerous, collect the taxes we need to mitigate the harm, and come together as a community and take care of each other when we need it.

This approach, by contrast, just plays into the hands of the right who wail about the "nanny state" and government overreach, and alienates potential allies among what you call "non-combatants" who might otherwise benefit from progressive policies. Instead, the right and the left give them a one-two punch. The conservatives take away their food stamps and unemployment benefits (with the help of liberals who call it a good compromise), and then the liberals come and impose a $1.35 tax on every 2-liter bottle of soda (with the help of all-too-eager conservatives).

But it's all for their own good, you see! It's insulting is what it is.

And then you wonder why people stay home and don't vote?

Posted by Greg on Feb. 04, 2014 @ 11:08 pm

OK, two cents per ounce is different. Too bad that none of the development plans for the poorer areas of town where people are more likely to face these health problems had any provisions for healthy grocery stores so that people could make good choices instead of being punished for making the only choices available--bad choices.

Posted by marcos on Feb. 05, 2014 @ 7:21 am

city just because it is poor, if they do not want to open there. Best you can do is offer tax breaks.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 05, 2014 @ 8:20 am

are you against cigarette taxes? if not, what is the distinction you'd make between the two?

Posted by guestD on Feb. 05, 2014 @ 8:17 am

I voted against every cigarette tax I've come across. Like with soda, it doesn't affect me because I don't smoke, but it's the principle. I don't like "sin taxes" and I don't like regressive taxes. We all do things that are stupid/unhealthy and/or dangerous. Instead of picking and choosing who to punish for their bad habits and who to leave alone, I propose an alternative: just leave everybody alone as far as punishing things that harm no one but themselves. Have everyone pay their taxes (because we do live in civilization rather than the jungle), and fund harm reduction programs of various sorts. Those who can pay more would pay more, and those who need more would get more. If it were up to me, I'd replace all sales taxes with a combination of property and income taxes.

Posted by Greg on Feb. 05, 2014 @ 6:08 pm

property taxes with a VAT and more sin taxes.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 05, 2014 @ 6:22 pm

I want to shift more of the tax burden to the rich because they can pay more, while you want to shift more of the burden to the poor, because... ...???

Posted by Greg on Feb. 06, 2014 @ 3:07 pm

possible. Polluting tax policy with envy isn't a prudent was to secure revenues and manage budgets.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 06, 2014 @ 4:37 pm

unless it is not.

Being opposed to invasive busy body government is bad, unless it is not.

Posted by guest on Feb. 05, 2014 @ 2:28 am

You get only one vote, no matter how much noise you make.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 04, 2014 @ 7:52 pm

Politics is the art of organizing to break through government tyranny and fight against the oppressors who rule behind the scenes. Greg comes across as a very reasoned, effective advocate, a necessary ingredient for successful organizing and focus. He's about the only reason I read the comments section, hoping I'll find one of his thoughtful posts among the dross that's usually posted here. Talking with others who read the SFBG website, I'm not alone in the assessment of Greg's often excellent analysis and explanatory skills. The fact that you and others constantly use ad hominem attacks against him speaks volumes as to his effectiveness.

I'm with Greg. It's more "liberal" government gone bad, punishing people rather than working with them to help curtail destructive behaviors. I also think it's basically a regressive tax on the poor. But with Wiener pushing it, that's always going to be the case.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 04, 2014 @ 8:47 pm

I'm seriously humbled.

Posted by Greg on Feb. 04, 2014 @ 10:43 pm

What he really needs to do is to be able to persuade moderates and conservatives, and I have seen zero evidence of that happening.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 05, 2014 @ 8:21 am

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Posted by secuity systems camera on Mar. 03, 2014 @ 3:42 am

Why are you guys framing this as a "Scott Weiner thing"? Him AND Eric Mar are pushing for this. They both came up with different proposals at the same time and just merged them into one. It's not a moderate/progressive thing, it's a nanny state issue because both of them think people are too stupid/ignorant to be able to decide on food choices for themselves (just like the Happy Meal toy ban).

Posted by Guest on Feb. 05, 2014 @ 8:45 pm

Yet that's not enough. We need a tax to fund the "mission" of non-profits who are here to tell minorities (because that's who's the fattest) how to take care of themselves. Here's a hint - put down the Jarritos and pig's feet.

Posted by Esther Rabinowitz on Feb. 04, 2014 @ 8:08 pm

between 3 departments for health, health education and recreation because 8.6 Billion dollars a year (the budget) is not enough to fund these programs?

Posted by Guest on Feb. 04, 2014 @ 8:48 pm

between 3 departments for health, health education and recreation because 8.6 Billion dollars a year (the budget) is not enough to fund these programs?

Posted by Guest on Feb. 04, 2014 @ 8:57 pm

San Fransisco is not Richmond, this is why Big Soda will lose, Yes they will lie and misdirect, hire PR and marketing firms, spend $millions against this 2 cent tax but San Fransisco is not Richmond, Big Soda will lose.

Posted by Davidinsf on Feb. 04, 2014 @ 9:08 pm

It's 2 cents PER OUNCE. I guess you conveniently forgot that part.

So the cases of coke I buy regularly on sale for 25 cents per can will now cost 50 cents per can. Ouch. The case price will go up by almost $6.00. That's more than I pay for a case of coke on sale now! Double ouch.

I may drink too much coke but my BMI is quite healthy. It's amazing how this thing called exercise can keep those calories off the waistline. I guess it's too much effort to teach nutrition and exercise to people, when it's easier to just bash them over the head with regressive taxes.

It definitely makes sense to do more shopping in Daly City, just to save on soft-drink purchases. Many shoppers will do their $200 a week grocery shopping there as well. Thanks for increasing car trips supervisors and pushing more sales activity to other cities!

Many of the BOS members may be very sharp lawyers, but there's a law called "unintended consequences" they should research.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 04, 2014 @ 10:18 pm

You’re absolutely right that when it comes to health and maintaining a healthy weight, there are many factors involved – including overall diet and exercise. Education that teaches this balance can make a substantive difference, whereas regulation will fail to make a measurable impact. The fact is no one source of calories is the culprit driving complex health conditions; myriad variables are involved, including ones we can’t control, such as genetics, age, etc. Also, you hit on an important point regarding the unintended consequences of such legislation. Not only would it drive up costs for consumers, it would hurt local businesses too. At the end of the day, citizens are perfectly capable of deciding for themselves what goes in their grocery cart – and education can help them make informed, balanced choices. Beverages can certainly be a part of this balance. - Maureen Beach, American Beverage Association

Posted by Guest on Feb. 06, 2014 @ 6:59 am

it would be a the BOS vs big publishing?

You're stupid.

Posted by guest on Feb. 05, 2014 @ 2:19 am

This might be one of the dumbest taxes (even for SF) I've heard proposed - for the reasons already cited above.

But if sticking a bunch of taxes on the ballot helps to kill any VLF increase - all for putting this on the ballot.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 05, 2014 @ 12:15 am

whining Richmond authoritarian doesn't start talking when this page loads.

Posted by guest on Feb. 05, 2014 @ 2:29 am

It's just another way for the left to punish colored people of color for not being white.

Posted by Chromefields on Feb. 05, 2014 @ 9:06 am
Posted by Guest on Feb. 05, 2014 @ 9:14 am

and since soda is cheaper down there, why not pick up the rest of the groceries. So long sales tax revenue.
I don't drink soda, I hate it when I see people feeding to their young children (most often when I am riding MUNI). I am against this because it will hurt the poor and people of means will simply shop outside the hallowed 7X7.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 05, 2014 @ 11:36 am
Posted by Guest on Feb. 05, 2014 @ 12:05 pm

If the Board of Supervisors was serious about preventing obesity and other health problems, the first thing they would do would be to ban all processed foods in The City. Then they would set up a County-run program that would replace SNAP and WIC and all the other failed attempts at food distribution with a simple program that provides cheap or free prepared meals and/or a delivery of a box of healthy food to anyone that wants it, even if they live in Pacific Heights. Enough fresh produce enters The City each day to feed everyone who needs a meal. Free Health and Wellness Centers where people could learn how to take care of their bodies, rehabilitate injuries, take tai chi and yoga classes, and do cardio and strength training would help mitigate the health problems caused by traditional diets and non-exercise.
A tax on soft drinks will do nothing to stop obesity, tooth decay, heart disease, and the plethora of other negative health effects caused by sugar. This tax will undoubtedly be politically popular among "progressives," and attacked by "conservatives," setting up a straw man that will be burned on the pyre of public opinion. It may result in the perception that certain politicians care about the poor. But in fact, by the time these taxes are implemented and collected, and "programs" are set up, most of the people using these products will have serious health problems, or will have died from them. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Posted by TrollKiller on Feb. 06, 2014 @ 8:03 am

In Last few years several hundreds lost their jobs during inflation. Such taxes directly impact the general public.So its better to implement them to the richer person on another way.

Posted by Margaret Williams on Feb. 06, 2014 @ 10:36 pm

Your English As a Second Language classes are coming along nicely, Margaret.

Posted by Chromefields on Feb. 07, 2014 @ 7:40 am

insulting people who are less sophisticated does not help us move forward. Margret has a good point.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 07, 2014 @ 11:49 am

And an asset to SFBG. Too bad you lack a sense of humor.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 07, 2014 @ 12:10 pm

If someone have few grammatical mistakes in his/her English then it never mean to take the right of freedom of speak. None have right to seize the rights of other. Now coming to the articles. If the more taxes is implemented on the beverages then Shift on the smoothies they are not only the best way to save the money but also will added a healthy diet to your daily diet. Smoothies are easy to make

Posted by Manize on Mar. 24, 2014 @ 4:37 am

Ask the Content Writers to Comment can relief yourself.

Posted by Margaret Williams on Mar. 24, 2014 @ 4:09 am

when republican governor pete wilson instituted the "snack tax" on certain kinds of food, it was lefties like the BG who screamed bloody murder.

I guess when you have young staff who don't think the world existed before they are born writing for you, such facts vanish down the memory hole.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 11, 2014 @ 2:29 am

... you mean the world existed before when I was born? Criminy! What's a Pete Wilson? Who's a "Prop 13"? Why is there a "New" Coke? Why did old people put shiny vinyl records into their iPods and call it a "Discman?" 

Posted by Joe Fitzgerald on Feb. 11, 2014 @ 6:50 pm

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