Photo: Vox Efx
No city has yet been successful in passing a sugar-sweetened beverages tax. Will Berkeley be first? Photo: Vox Efx

Berkeley has embarked on a path that could lead it to becoming the first city in the nation to tax sugar-sweetened beverages.

On Tuesday night the City Council agreed to put a sugar tax on a community poll assessing possible ballot measures for the November 2014 election (the poll will also test opinions on a commercial vacancies tax, a business license tax on rental housing, and a bond and tax measure for parks). A broad coalition of local groups, rallying under the banner of Berkeley vs Big Soda, turned out a crowd of vocal advocates for a one cent per ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.

“No city has been able to successfully pass a sugar-sweetened beverages tax. But it will happen here in Berkeley,” said Councilman Darryl Moore. 

Proponents of a soda tax were out in force in neon green at Berkeley City Council. Photo: Lance Knobel
Proponents of a soda tax were out in force in neon green at Berkeley City Council. Photo: Lance Knobel

Moore, usually measured in his remarks at council meetings, delivered an emotive call to support the tax: “We’re the first community to divest. The first community for same sex partner benefits. The first community to do curb cuts for our disabled citizens. We’re not going to let big soda and big sugar tell us that we’re going to continue to pollute our young people. We’re prepared for the battle, we’re prepared for the fight.”

Community survey results will be available for the City Council meeting on April 1. Final approval on ballot language is scheduled for the July 1 meeting of the council.

Nearby Richmond had a similar ballot measure in 2012, which was defeated. According to Councilman Laurie Capitelli, tax opponents, led by beverage manufacturers, spent $3.5 million to defeat the Richmond measure. San Francisco also is likely to have a so-called soda tax on the ballot in November.

“They will accuse Berkeley of being a nanny state”

“It will be a daunting task, because the sugar industry if we proceed with this, will throw millions and millions of dollars at this,” Capitelli said. “They will try to divide us by race, they will try to divide us by class. They will accuse Berkeley of being a nanny state. You can count on a piece of mail in your mailbox every three or four days. It scares the pants off me to think about what they’re going to do when they come after us. They will try to buy people. They will accuse Berkeley and the Council of trying to dictate what you can buy. We’re going to get all of that, and we’re going to get it in an avalanche. But we’re letting people poison us and we’re letting them get off scott free.”

Supporters of a soda tax line up for public comment at Berkeley City Council. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Supporters of a soda tax line up for public comment at Berkeley City Council. Photo: Emilie Raguso

“The reason for such a tax is clear,” said Vicki Alexander, co-chair, Berkeley Healthy Child Coalition. “40% of Berkeley Unified 9th graders are overweight. An African-American resident is four times more likely than a white resident to have been diagnosed with diabetes. It is unconscionable to stand by and do nothing. Please be for Berkeley and against big soda. The health of our children and our families is at stake.”

Alexander explained that the tax would be on distributors of drinks that have added caloric sweeteners, including sodas, sports drinks, energy drinks, and sweetened iced teas. It would not apply to diet drinks, alcohol, milk products, infant formula, or drinks taken for medical reasons. Small businesses would be exempt.

According to materials distributed by the Healthy Child Coalition, economists have estimated that a penny-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks would reduce consumption by 10-15% over a decade. Research by UCSF Professor Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo concluded that over a 10-year span, passage of such a tax nationally would prevent an estimated 95,000 coronary heart events, 8,000 strokes, and 26,000 premature deaths, while avoiding more than $17 billion in medical costs.

“Berkeley voters are too smart”

“The power that’s here is huge,” said Xavier Morales, executive director, Latino Coalition for a Healthy California. “Berkeley has been a national leader in improving the quality of nutrition in schools. We know that our presence here makes Berkeley a target for big soda. But we know that these tactics won’t work here. Berkeley voters are too smart. We have a campaign manager and we are actively fundraising. Together we’re going to win.”

Several councilmembers said there is a difficult choice between placing a special tax — the funds of which could go for a specific purpose, such as nutrition programs in schools — or a general tax — where funds go into the city’s general fund — on the ballot. A special tax requires a two-thirds majority vote, while a general tax requires only 50% plus one. Alexander said the campaign estimates a one cent tax per ounce in Berkeley would produce $1.5 million annually.

Lizzie Velten, state and national policy coordinator for the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, said statewide polling showed two-thirds support for a special tax on sugary drinks. When the tax was posed as a general tax, however, support dropped to one-third.

Councilmember Susan Wengraf, who said she was diagnosed as pre-diabetic two years ago, urged consideration of a higher tax rate.

“How did you guys come up with one cent per ounce, because I want to make sure this deters people from buying sugared drinks,” Wengraf said. “It doesn’t just cost more, but it helps people make the decision not to buy it at all. I don’t want it to just be making people pay more for the poison, I want people to stop buying the poison.”

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Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...