February 26, 2014; Eat Drink Politics

The Coalition for an Affordable City is a little more upfront about its origins than most of the impenetrable groups that pop up to promote this issue or that. On the bottom of its webpage, the Coalition reveals that it, or at least its webpage, was paid for by the American Beverage Association. The full name of the group is Stop Unfair Beverage Taxes–Coalition for an Affordable City and it operates in cooperation with its “sister organization,” Americans Against Food Taxes—which might be read as against soda taxes or sugar taxes.

That’s the issue in San Francisco, where local political leaders have proposed a ballot measure to tax sugary beverages at two cents per ounce. The tax would raise an estimated $31 million annually, which the backers of the initiative say would be devoted to local health programs. Two cents isn’t a big tax, but the beverage industry has linked the idea to the concerns of San Franciscans that the city is terribly unaffordable. We would guess that San Franciscans are complaining about housing affordability in particular, given the city’s ever-escalating home prices and rents. With the monthly median rent for a studio apartment having reached $2,200 a month, San Francisco is now the nation’s most unaffordable housing market. To the members of the American Beverage Association, a two-cent tax is “the last thing we need…[because it] makes it even more expensive to live and work in San Francisco.”

San Francisco isn’t the first venue for food tax battles. In 2012, the California communities of Richmond and El Monte considered soda taxes, but industry lobbyists outmuscled or outmoneyed the supporters. In San Francisco’s case, a coalition has mobilized in support of the sugary soda tax, with members including the California Nurses Association, the Hospital Council of Northern California, the Trust for Public Land, and Parents for Public Schools. The beverage association, along major players such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi, is unlikely to be outspent. In this case, as in most, money isn’t the equivalent of votes; it speaks only for the sources of the money.—Rick Cohen