A San Francisco Soda Tax for a Healthier City

A San Francisco soda tax of 2 pennies per ounce is on the ballot in November 2014.  This could be the first such tax in the country to pass and would be a great step towards making SF a healthier city.  The reactions that I've read thus far to this tax have surprised me and motivated me to clearly explain the details of tax and why it is worth supporting.  Read on to get accurate information based on facts, not emotions or press releases from soda industry funded "activists".

What are the details of the San Francisco soda tax?

The 2 cent tax would add about 40 cents to the cost of a 20oz bottle of soda.  It will not be applied like a sales tax (which is added to the product cost at the cash register), but instead it will be charged directly to the beverage manufacturer (and one would assume manufacturers will pass the tax onto consumers by raising their prices).  It will apply to soda, energy drinks, and other sugar sweetened beverages with more than 25 calories; diet sodas and naturally sweetened beverages like juice would not be included.

Come on, another tax?

This is a little different than most taxes in that the primary purpose is not to raise revenue but instead to influence consumer behavior.  The goal is to help consumers make healthier choices, similar to the cigarette taxes that have very effectively reduced the number of Americans that smoke.  This tax is expected to raise about $30 million and by law the revenue must be used to fund active recreation and nutrition programs in San Francisco public schools, parks, and recreation centers; food access initiatives, drinking fountain and water bottle filling stations; and dental health services.  In other words, the revenue from this tax will go right back to the SF residents that are statistically most likely to be at risk for obesity to help educate them to make better decisions.

Doesn't this tax unfairly burden SF's poorest residents?

Unfortunately, lower-income residents are already unfairly burdened with obesity and other health issues.  These same residents also consume more sugared beverages.  Unlike a traditional regressive sales tax, which taxes everyday items that consumers of all income levels have no choice but to buy, there is an easy way to avoid the impact of this tax.  Those that are financially burdened by the San Francisco soda tax can drink fewer sugared beverages, instead choosing other (healthier) options that will quench their thirst and not have the additional tax applied.  In the long run, by avoiding sugared beverages, these residents will have saved money and given themselves a better chance to living a healthy life.

I'm an adult, can't I make my own decisions about what I do to my body?

I hear you and I agree for the most part.  However, there are many kids out there that drink soda every day without knowing or understanding the long term effects this will have.  In most cases, it is these same children that are not making purchasing decisions.  So, if you are an adult and choose to drink soda and would be paying more for it, think about the children who will be  drinking healthier beverages because they can't afford the tax or because they learned how to make healthier decisions based on tax funded nutrition education programs.  A few cents tax on your soda is a small tax to pay if it can save children from a lifetime of obesity related health issues.

But will this solve the obesity problem?

Of course not, it's only a small step in the right direction!  But sugar sweetened beverages are one of the largest contributors to obesity and one of the easiest things to cut out from a diet.  This tax will play a role in raising awareness to how big of a deal obesity is in this country and how small changes in habits can have a tremendously positive effect on health.  The programs funded from this tax will be used to teach people how to embrace an overall healthy diet (not just about healthy beverage choices).

Obesity?  Is that really a problem?

Yes!  It is a FACT that obesity rates have grown significantly in the last few decades.  It is also a FACT that obesity is directly related to increased health problems and money spent on health care.  In fact, the medical costs for someone who is obese averaged $1,428 higher than those of someone normal weight in 2008.  That adds up to about $147 billion spent to treat obesity in a single year.

Center for Disease Control chart showing a sharp rise in obesity in the US over a 14 year period.  A San Francisco soda tax can help reduce obesity.
Center for Disease Control chart showing a sharp rise in obesity in the US over a 14 year period. A San Francisco soda tax can help reduce obesity.

Is soda really that unhealthy for you?

I could bore you with lots of medical studies telling you that your body doesn't process sugary beverages the same way it does food, and that drinking sugary sodas for just two weeks contributes to the development of diabetes and heart disease.  Or I could just show you this chart and let common sense be your guide.

Infographic showing that a 20 oz. bottle of soda contains 22 sugar packets.  Support cutting sugar through the San Francisco soda tax.
Infographic showing that a 20 oz. bottle of soda contains 22 sugar packets. Support cutting sugar through the San Francisco soda tax.

I encourage you to support a healthier city and vote in support of the San Francisco soda tax.  Two cents an ounce is a small price to pay to help reduce obesity.

Sources:  http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html

What happens when you combine technology and politics?

This is not a normal political post, because it really has nothing to do with the political beliefs of either Romney or Obama.  But as the writer of a technology blog who followed the 2012 election very closely (I will admit to making myself feel physically sick the day of the election because of nervousness over the results), I found reading about the technology supporting both campaigns particularly fascinating. First, a summary of the "Orca" program built by the Romney campaign (in part by a large corporation - Microsoft) is here.  In a nutshell, Romney built a massive application that was hosted on servers physically located in Boston's TD Garden Arena, but unfortunately failed miserably in doing adequate stress testing, basic configurations (such as forwarding  http requests to https), and distributing passwords/instructions/training effectively to the thousands of users.  The night of the election was the first time it had been used, and it failed dismally.  My favorite quote from the article:

The end result,” Ekdahl wrote, “was that 30,000+ of the most active and fired-up volunteers were wandering around confused and frustrated when they could have been doing anything else to help. The bitter irony of this entire endeavor was that a supposedly small government candidate gutted the local structure of [get out the vote] efforts in favor of a centralized, faceless organization in a far off place (in this case, their Boston headquarters). Wrap your head around that.

Now for the Obama campaign, which was summarized here.   There are not nearly as many details, but it sounds like he built a tool for his grass roots movement to effectively organize where they invested their efforts.  The technology supporting this was using modern web architecture: cloud based services supported by Amazon.

Clearly, Obama and team had a lot more time to build and deploy this than Romney, but I do think this is yet another interesting difference between the two campaigns.




Where did all the compassion go?

"Compassion isn’t a sign of weakness, but of civilization."  - Nicholas Kristoff' I've been thinking a lot lately about compassion, especially in terms of the upcoming US election cycle.  I have an interesting history with religion, having spent the first 15 years of my life blissfully ignorant to any religion before spending 4 years at a Catholic high school where I was thrown in head first.  I never came close to becoming Catholic, but I did really enjoy learning many of the values that most Christian faiths instill in its followers.  One such core value is this idea of compassion, and my four years of Catholic teaching opened my eyes to soup kitchens, clothing drives, holiday gift drives, and caring for those in the community who were struggling in one way or another.  This has no doubt shaped me into the man I am today.

Fast forward to 2012 and I am blown away by an apparent lack of compassion in this country, including a significant number of so called Christians.  We are the wealthiest and strongest nation in the world and yet our country is in the midst of a vicious debate over providing health care, something that could arguably be called a universal right.  If you look at many of the hotly debated issues, whether it is health care, gay rights, immigration, or female equality, they all boil down to compassion.  I wish every American was able to put themselves into the shoes of others before voting, thinking through the issues from the perspective of someone whose whole world centers upon one of these.  For example, what if you were the friend or relative of Scott Androes, the man who made a now fatal mid life crisis mistake to quit his job and lose his health insurance and was recently portrayed by Nicholas Kristoff's in the New York Times (read here)?  Or what if you were brought to the US when you were 3 months old and know nothing but the USA and are told that you have no reasonable chance of ever becoming a citizen?

Almost all of the issues debated in this year's election have absolutely no impact on my day to day life.  Regardless of who wins, I will wake up on November 7th knowing that my life can continue on in pretty much the same manner.  But for millions of Americans, that will unfortunately not be the case.  In one night, the dream of affordable health care, marrying the love of one's life, or becoming a US citizen could be destroyed.  So why do I care so much about this election?  It all comes down to compassion.  I feel for those in situations different than mine.  I feel lucky to be where I am and I recognize the best way  that I can show that appreciation is to care for others that aren't so lucky.

So, on November 6th, all I ask for is that you think about how you can be compassionate to others.  Help your fellow Americans with a vote that represents what you would be wishing for if you were in the shoes of one of millions of other Americans struggling to get health insurance, hoping for equal pay, in need of birth control, or trying to get married.  Who knows, maybe that will be you or your child some day in need of some compassion.

Side Note:

Seeing the graphic below really made me sad, as it shows a complete lack of compassion by a large portion of Americans (unfortunately there is a large % in all 3 groups).  Pew Research Center study from 2012 (page 5 in PDF).


Pew Research study on compassion

I was a welfare mother

Larkin Warren wrote a terrific essay in the NY Times this past Sunday (read here).  It tells a first hand story about Romney's 47%.  Sure, there are plenty of people that abuse the system and put in little effort to live a really crappy (but work free) lifestyle on welfare.  But for every person who "beats" the system, I'm sure there is at least one story like what Larken writes about, struggling to get by and if given the right opportunities will be able to overcome life's hurdles and become a contributing member of society (the 53% in Romney's eyes). The opportunity that people like Larkin have in this country is what makes this country so great in my opinion.  I sure hope that later this year America votes to give folks like Larkin a chance to achieve the "American Dream".  Writes Larkin:

I was not an exception in that little Section 8 neighborhood. Among those welfare moms were future teachers, nurses, scientists, business owners, health and safety advocates. We never believed we were “victims” or felt “entitled”; if anything, we felt determined. Wouldn’t any decent person throw a rope to a drowning person? Wouldn’t any drowning person take it?