Will Berkeley be first in nation to impose soda tax?

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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  • readbastiat

    Read Bastiat – http://bastiat.org/en/twisatwins.html

    What if this well meaning tax has some undesirable consequences that cannot be seen? For example, grocery stores have extremely low margins, what if even a small percentage of shoppers changed their purchasing behavior and began shopping outside of Berkeley? Is it not possible that we run the risk that one of these stores may close, exacerbating a healthy food accessibility problem for portions of our community? The blight, and lost property tax that this may cause? What if, to compensate, the rest of your food bill goes up considerably?

    What about all the additional greenhouse gas emissions that we might be creating as people leave Berkeley in search of cheaper soda?

    These taxes are not free from consequences. They are just much more challenging to quantify as they remain largely unseen. If one even attempts to think about all the potential additional costs that may exist, it seems to make sense that maybe we should take a pass on this and all other interventions into the marketplace.

    I don’t drink soda. My kids have never had a soda. They yell yuck when we pass McDonald’s. I am definitely not the parent of the year, just parenting and not allowing the marketing assault to affect my family.

  • moretoitthanmsnbctellsya

    Since you are so eager to throw Fox News under the bus, it would probably trouble you to know that Donald Rumsfeld, yes the same one that won the presidential medal of freedom, and has demonstrated throughout his life a love of humanity above all else, was largely responsible for Aspartame’s approval by the FDA. So, of course diet soda is good for you. Government is only looking out for your best interests.


  • skeptic

    Anxiety and chronic stress is a huge burden on our health. Major sources of that anxiety in Berkeley are purveyors of alternative health snake oil. In place of a tax on soda, I would suggest a tax on dangerous, unproven, anxiety producing alternative health solutions to imaginary health problems.

  • skeptic

    How about a sucker tax on every vitamin and herbal supplement that passes right on through into our urine without doing us any good? How about an anxiety tax on every fear monger who tries to profit from our hypochondria by trying to convince us that milk, or wheat, or meat, or god know what else will kill us?

  • Cammy

    If they’re so smart, why not write EBMUD and demand that fluoride used from phosphate fertilizer industry be taken out of our water…

  • rhuberry

    Says who? Who has done this extensive kind of survey to find out who eats what and in what quantities?

  • rhuberry

    Where do you get your information? How exactly does Big Soda aggressively target kids of color? How do they isolate these kids in their advertising so it disproportionally reaches them rather than the population at large?

  • Jmc

    So should we stop drinking milk, eating butter, ice cream, etc?

  • guest

    After reading the article and comments, having a soda tax issue on the ballot doesn’t make sense to me.

  • Holly

    Taxes on tobacco are excise taxes on distributors of tobacco products, just as the Healthy Child Initiative proposes for sugary drinks. In the case of tobacco products the distributors have passed on this cost to those who are purchasing them.

    A percentage of the tobacco taxes go to every health department in California and funded the education and organizing in the 1990s that resulted in bans on smoking in indoor workplaces, including restaurants and bars. The taxes are vital in changing the norms around smoking and reducing smoking related disease.

  • guest

    Why have cigarette taxes and liquor taxes? Why the obsessive need to control the behavior of others?

    Why not just set an example by not buying cigarettes and liquor for your children?

  • MrTea

    That’s what some of the advocates said when they got the tobacco tax passed in California. But did you know that Team Genius in Sacramento already issued bonds borrowing against the future proceeds of the tobacco tax revenue? The only thing that surprised me about that when I heard it was I had didn’t know it was legal. So, if people actually stopped smoking the state is on the hook for money it already spent.

  • Mark Talmont

    The only thing that will reduce weight is consuming fewer calories or burning more through physical activity. Though personally I believe that there is a qualitative factor in the food’s composition; 100 calories of super-refined carb/fat junk (gut glue) is worse for you that 100 calories of liquid sugar. It’s like adding resistance to an electrical circuit where you get more heat.

  • Mark Talmont

    On these matters there seems to be a critical element of making a “statement”. They love these “town hall” type forums where everybody has a chance to pontificate. It’s a lot easier than actually changing your behavior.

    I wonder if it would be an improvement to sell plain fruit juice at cost or a smaller margin than the sodas at the schools?

  • kevin

    i am sure NYC did it first

  • Griff

    I don’t think a tax (unless it’s very large) will do anything to limit kids’ consumption of soda or make much of a statement.

  • Devin

    yes in fact it is incredibly unhealthy to eat nothing but peaches….but I still want millions of peaches, peaches for free…

  • Joey

    Anyone can do the research on health effects of soda, we don’t need people taxing us because they disapprove of what we consume. This kind of faux-moralistic crap makes my blood boil.

  • Mbfarrel

    Orwell was wrong. The danger is not Big Brother, but Big Mother