Dec. 19, 2007 — -- San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom wants the city to slim down and he's going after stores that sell sugary soft drinks to finance the effort.
The mayor is proposing that grocery chains pay a fee if they sell sodas such as Coca-Cola or any other drinks that are sweetened with high fructose corn syrup.
If the plan is approved by the Board of Supervisors, the funds raised would help pay for a city initiative focusing on healthy eating and exercise.
Newsom is framing the measure as a fight against chronic obesity, which strains the city's health-care system, but critics say the government is going way too far.
David Harsanyi, author of the book "Nanny State," said, "It's an egregious undermining of freedom. The freedom to choose what I eat and what I don't eat."
The American Beverage Association calls it a "soda tax" and points out, among other things, that the government does not tax computer and video game manufacturers that are keeping people on the couch and out of shape. Opponents say personal freedom is under attack across the country.
But the charismatic mayor thinks obesity rates across America easily justify the measure.
"I think everybody in this country understands the cause-and-effect [relationship between] calorically sweetened beverages and incidences of obesity in this country, and obesity becoming an increasing, problematic health risk," he said.
According to Newsom, the fees are a small cost to bear in comparison to the "obesity rates and overweight issues in this country." Of the 65 percent of Americans considered overweight, studies show roughly one-third are considered "obese," weighing 30 more pounds over their ideal weight.
"That is a health-related cost that all of us are bearing and, in San Francisco, the numbers are consistent," Newsom said.
But some residents think it's one thing to discourage citizens from doing "the wrong thing" and another to impose taxes that would force them to do "the right thing."
But numerous cities and companies have done the latter. In southern Los Angeles, the City Council recently voted to stop fast food restaurants from opening for a year so that it could study the linkages among race, obesity and fast food.
New York City imposed a trans-fat ban this summer, requiring that restaurants switch to ingredients that use less than half a gram of fat per serving for frying and spreads. The companies L.L. Bean and Sodexho have imposed a "Twinkie tax" — charging more for unhealthy snack foods in their cafeterias.
The idea of taxing unhealthy products is premised on the alcohol and tobacco model. The rising costs of alcohol and tobacco products over the years, fueled in part by rising taxes, led to subsequent declines in their consumption. Studies have shown that as the cost of alcohol climbed in the 1980s and '90s, drinking declined. Smoking prohibition in restaurants and offices and exorbitant cigarette taxes have cut in half the number of male smokers and cut down the number of female smokers by 25 percent studies show.
More than 10 years ago, Kelly Brownell, the director of Yale's Center for Eating and Weight Disorders, suggested a Twinkie tax plan in which monies collected from junk-food taxes would fund healthy eating awareness programs and subsidize health foods.
Brownell estimated that even a tax of 1 cent on each canned soft drink purchase would raise $1.5 billion per year. Taxing 1 cent on each bag of chips or snack food could, in theory, generate hundreds of millions of annually. U.S. News & World Report called the plan one of 16 "smart ideas to fix the world" in 1997.
And the food industry has pushed back on this and others' ideas they believe are not so smart. The Center for Consumer Freedom, a nonprofit coalition of restaurants, food companies and consumers, called Brownell a "food nanny" and likened his idea to a "weed or a virus" that has spread all the way to England and New Zealand.
The group also released a print ad with the caustic message: "You are too stupid to make your own food choices." It warned consumers about the "food police" imposing taxes on foods "they don't want you to eat."