San Francisco Mayor: Tax Soda But Call It Something Else and Pretend That Individuals Won’t Pay It

September 18, 2009

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom talks about the health issues, of course, with his new soda tax proposal:

Newsom said he was particularly motivated to move forward with the legislation by Thursday’s release of a UCLA study showing a link between soda and obesity in California. Researchers found that adults who drink at least one soft drink a day are 27 percent more likely to be obese than those who don’t – and that soda consumption is fueling the state’s $41 billion annual obesity problem.[…]

Mitch Katz, director of the city’s Department of Public Health, said a study conducted over the past nine months shows a clear link between soda consumption and an increased burden on the public health system. He did not have a total dollar figure.

He said he considers a soda fee an incremental step, and that other sugary foods could someday have a surcharge as well.

“It makes sense for the government to help people to make the right choices, and it makes sense to use dollars from charges on sweetened beverages on health programs,” he said.

That last paragraph’s first line is a little scary to me, but a typical statement from health departments nowadays. But given that Newsom is so concerned, you’d think he’d want a big public discussion of the evils of obesity and soda taxes. You’d think he’d want the tax to be as visible as possible so as to discourage consumption. You’d think the tax would apply to all purchases of soda, not just some. Nope, nope, and nope:

Calling soda the new tobacco, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom will introduce legislation this fall that would charge a fee to retailers that sell sugary beverages.

Newsom would need voter approval to tax individual cans of soda and sugary juice, but only needs approval from the Board of Supervisors to levy a fee on retailers. His legislation would charge grocery stores like Safeway and big-box stores, but would not affect restaurants that serve sodas.

Luckily, California courts don’t look too kindly on such tax/fee shenanigans. Fees are charges that compensate the government for the cost of a particularized service provided to the individual paying it. Health care for all obese people, anti-obesity marketing programs, and subsidies for exercise programs (the suggested uses of the new revenue) don’t count. It’s a tax. And a hidden one, at that, since Newsom is pretending that “businesses” will pay it and not individuals. Believe me, it’ll show up on those receipts.

Residents of San Francisco aren’t dumb. The Chronicle has an online poll asking whether respondents would support Newsom’s proposal. 51% have picked the option “No, just another tax.”


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