Big Soda wants Bay Area voters to think soda tax is a grocery tax

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the beverage industry is spending millions to convince voters that the proposed soda tax will raise their grocery prices, not just the cost of sugary drinks, says Bridget Huber in FERN’s latest story, produced with PRI’s The World.

“The soda industry has spent more than $24 million fighting Bay Area soda tax proposals this year — almost twice as much as its opponents,” Huber says. The industry-sponsored TV ads have the same message: “Say no to the grocery tax,” says Huber. “But if you look at the ballots in San Francisco, Oakland, and Albany, you won’t find mention of a grocery tax. What you will find is a soda tax — a penny-per-ounce excise tax on sugary drinks that proponents say will nudge consumers toward healthier choices while raising money for health and education programs.”

The anti-tax ads often feature local shopkeepers, many of them minorities, who worry what the tax will do to their businesses. Kaykay Amamgbo, who owns the African Caribbean Food Market and was featured in an ad, told Huber that she worries customers will take their money somewhere else if prices go up even slightly.

“If a drink is $1.99 and then they come in and it’s $2.25, they’re going to notice,” Amamgbo said.

At the Mi Tierra Market in San Francisco, Adel Alghazali, a Yemeni immigrant whose family owns the store, said that the soda tax will add up for customers, especially if you factor in a bottle deposit for glass containers, sales tax and a plastic bag charge. “It’s really sad and it’s not fair,” he told Huber.

But public-health advocates see the matter differently. “People who regularly consume sugary drinks are at higher risk of diabetes and heart disease,” conditions that especially affect minority communities, says Huber.

And at least from a community-health perspective, soda taxes seem to work. In Berkeley, which passed a soda tax in the spring of 2015, has already seen the consumption of sugary drinks fall by 21 percent, according to a recent study by the University of California, Berkeley.

With Election Day nigh, the American Beverage Association is rushing to convince voters to nix the “grocery tax,” sending brown paper bags to homes with the words, “Sack the Tax” written on them. Meanwhile advocacy groups like Clinica de la Raza, have hired Spanish-speaking volunteers to urge Bay Area residents to vote for their health.

Check out FERN’s infographic on the soda-tax battle.