Opinion: Stop merger plan that threatens work of the soda tax commission

The City Council will vote Tuesday night on a plan to merge the Community Health Commission with the Soda Tax Commission.

Tuesday night, the City Council will vote on a proposal to dissolve the Community Health Commission (CHC) and add the workload of this commission to the legally mandated work of the Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Product Panel of Experts (SSBPPE). 

So what are these commissions?

Berkeley is one of three California cities that has its own public health department. The CHC was established by state law in the 1970s and amended in 1990 to fulfill its current purpose of advising the city on pertinent public health issues. This 18-member commission has nine sub-committees made up of diverse community members. Some of the issues the commission has recently explored include: 

  • The African American Holistic Resource Center
  • Reducing marketing of tobacco and cannabis to kids by banning flavored products
  • Alta Bates emergency room closure
  • Food insecurity

The SSBPPE was created in 2014 by the sugary drink tax initiative, which passed with 76% of the vote. It has a specific mandate to assure that the tax dollars generated by the tax are used for their intended purpose and to advise the council on how to reduce consumption of sugary drinks.  

Tax revenues totaled over $9 million by the end of June 2021. During this same time, $9.75 million in general fund monies has been allocated through the Healthy Berkeley Program to continue the popular school garden programs at BUSD as well as fund community grants. Healthy Berkeley provides vital education and skills building, and supports policies that reduce the marketing of sugary drinks.  The goal is to reduce rates of diabetes and other health problems caused by soda consumption, which disproportionately impact communities of color. 

The SSBPPE is a panel of experts. Criteria for commissioners ensures that they have expertise in areas related to sugary drinks, nutrition and public health. Commissioners devote substantial time to establish goals and strategies, review proposals and monitor the progress of the community grants. Commissioners donate their time to make sure that this program is successful and cutting edge.  Their work is focused by design and required by law.

Berkeley was the first city in the nation to pass a local soda tax and our model has since been replicated by other jurisdictions.  Others look to our example of effectively administering this program. Voters will need to renew the tax in 2026, so let’s not undermine the success of this program. Let’s continue to make history and make diabetes a thing of the past.

The SSBPPE cannot do its important focused work and take on the broader work of public health issues in the community. That will happen if the council votes to dissolve the  Community Health Commission and fold its work into the SSBPPE. It is not a matter of commitment but the limited time and capacity of the volunteer commissioners. The city’s proposal cites the need to merge these commissions because of funding. Yet soda tax revenues created and continue to pay for the city position that staffs the SSBPPE.  Why does the city need to merge these commissions if one of them is funded by tax revenues and the other is a long standing tradition? 

Does the city no longer want to get guidance from the vast pool of community expertise on public health?  Why weaken the oversight that assures that soda tax dollars are used appropriately? 

We believe that both commissions are necessary to continue to address health equity and support deeply impactful programs and cutting-edge policies. 

The council will vote on this on Jan. 18.  Please urge them to retain both commissions.  You can join the meeting or email council members at council@cityofberkeley.info.

Editor’s note, Jan. 19: The City Council pulled the item from the consent calendar and then failed to act on staff’s recommendation of a merger. So the proposed merger won’t happen.

Holly Scheider and Karma Smart are public health advocates who have donated time to enacting the sugary drink tax and serving on the commission to promote health equity. Dr.
Poki Namkung is a former Berkeley health officer and former commissioner on both the SSBPPE and CHC. Dr. Vicki Alexander is a former Berkeley health officer and director of Maternal, Adolescent and Child Health, and is on-going advocate for the sugary drink tax and health equity.