A not-so-sweet outcome for Prop. E

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

In the aftermath of the Nov. 4 elections, San Francisco became the 31st city to reject a soda tax, while Berkeley became the first in the country to levy a 1-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks.

More than $9 million, largely from the American Beverage Association, was funneled into defeating the San Francisco measure, known as Proposition E. Support for the proposition, led pro-bono by a major political firm, tallied some $255,000.

Despite the monetary imbalance, UCSF MPH candidate Lon Ogunduyile expressed surprise at the measure's defeat. “If the most progressive city in the country can’t pass a soda tax, what chance do smaller, less progressive cities have?”

Although 54.5 percent of voters supported Proposition E, its passage required a two-thirds majority since revenue from the soda tax would be earmarked for youth health programs. This may have been a reason former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a high-profile supporter of soda taxes, gave $85,000 to the Berkeley campaign but not the one in San Francisco.

Berkeley's Measure D, which did not require a two-thirds majority since funds were not earmarked for any particular cause, passed by a 3-to-1 margin.

This past election “really was not about the health aspects of sugar, but more about the financial effects,” said Cristin Kearns, a postdoctoral scholar UCSF who has studied the impact of the cane and beet industry on public policy.

A March 2010 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine said a 10 percent tax on soft drinks led to a 7 percent reduction of calories. Similarly, the authors said an 18 percent tax would result in a weight loss of 5 pounds per person per year.

Despite these figures, the measure failed to gain traction in low-income and minority-populated neighborhoods, while higher-income neighborhoods, such as Castro, Haight and Potrero Hill, supported it.

Research by Georgetown University Professor Lawrence Gostin found that opposition to the soda tax often stems from low-income neighborhoods, where people tend to drink more soda and cannot afford the price hikes. Such neighborhoods are also disproportionately affected by the negative health effects of sugary drinks and a lack of availability of low-cost, healthy food options. 

“Making healthier choices more attractive often requires making unhealthy options less attractive,” said first-year medical student Berkadesh Geberkristos. “Minority communities lack the public health awareness to make healthier choices, and this is one the most important reasons why diseases such as obesity and Type 2 diabetes often affect minority populations more severely.”

Proponents of the San Francisco soda tax say they will try again next November. Meanwhile,  UCSF researchers continued the effort to educate the public about the effects of sugar by launching SugarScience.org. Bolstered by more than 8,000 individual scientific papers, SugarScience.org has a team of 12 scientists from different disciplines.

“More and more, scientists are starting to realize that sugar in the kind of quantities that Americans are consuming it, on average, is making us sick,” said Laura Schmidt, a lead investigator at SugarScience.org and professor in the School of Medicine.

“No one had really surveyed the literature. And nobody for sure had taken that information and tried to share it with the American public,” Schmidt said.