Sugar tax hits the sweet spot for Berkeley residents

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 when Berkeley City Council first considered the measure last month. Photo: Lance Knobel

Berkeleyans seem eager to enact a new tax on sugar-sweetened drinks, but less likely to support other potential ballot measures being considered by the City Council.

A community survey of just over 500 voters taken last week showed healthy majorities for the so-called soda tax, whether it was for a new general tax or a special tax. In contrast, measures to increase the business license tax for landlords, establish a commercial vacancy tax, increase the parks parcel tax, and issue a pools bond failed to reach majorities or just crossed 50% support. City Council members said that support for measures often declines from levels indicated in community surveys. 

“The sugar tax hit the sweet spot,” said Councilmember Laurie Capitelli, who is on the community committee pushing for the tax. “For me, it’s disappointing that the parks question in particular fared so poorly.”

Four of the questions on the survey focused on the sugar-sweetened drinks tax, which is expected to face a well-funded opposition from the beverages industry. When respondents were asked whether they would support a one cent per ounce tax going to the general fund, 66% said yes. Asked about a special tax, with revenues dedicated to health and nutrition programs, 64% said yes. A general tax requires a simple majority vote, while a special tax requires two-thirds support.

Raising the tax to two cents per ounce reduced support to 55% for the general tax and 59% for the special tax. Reading respondents arguments for and against before posing the question produced very little change in the results.

A similar ballot measure is likely in San Francisco this November. San Francisco supporters are planning to focus on a special tax, despite the two-thirds hurdle. The measures on both sides of the Bay are likely to attract a particular barrage of opposition from the beverages industry.

“Both of us having it on the ballot will work against us,” admitted Capitelli. He said the well-funded opponents will buy regional media.

In contrast, raising the parks parcel tax by 10% ($29 per year for an average 1,900 sq. ft. house) attracted only 54% support. A parcel tax measure requires two-thirds support to pass. A proposal for a $25 million bond issue for pools and parks, including reopening Willard Pool, was supported by only 52%. For the measure to pass, it would need two-thirds majority in favor.

Survey respondents were also asked some general questions about Berkeley. 63% said “things in the city of Berkeley are going in the right direction.” Only 13% said “things are on the wrong track” (24% responded “don’t know”).

When asked to rate the job Berkeley is doing providing city services, 14% responded excellent, 55% responded good. Slightly less than a quarter, 23%, said fair and 5% said poor.

When asked about areas where Berkeley might need to invest, 31% said providing affordable housing was extremely important, and 31% rated improving children’s health as extremely important. Only 7% said renovating swimming pools or improving parks and playgrounds was extremely important.

46% of the respondents were men and 54% were women. 67% of respondents were white and 10% were black. 39% were over 60 and 20% were under 30. All respondents were required to be likely voters in the November 2014 election.

Correction: An earlier version of the story said eight of the questions concerned the soda tax. In fact, different respondents were given different questions for some parts of the survey. So any single respondent only received four of the questions on the soda tax. 

Related stories:
Willard pool reopening on agenda for park bond measure (02.13.14)
Will Berkeley be the first in the nation to impose soda tax? (02.12.14)
Willard Pool supporters turn out for parks meeting (10.17.13)
Berkeley Tuolumne Camp supporters push to rebuild (10.16.13)
Commission, public discuss priorities for Berkeley’s parks (10.04.13)
4 public meetings planned on future of Berkeley parks (09.05.13)

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  • guest

    Well, no one ever accused Berkeley voters of being intelligent.

  • dto510

    Where can we find the full poll results?

  • Doc

    It’s really wonderful that Berkeley citizens have largely concluded that the city just shouldn’t have more money until they have wiser ideas what to do with it. So long as the prevailing mood is to increase poverty and dependence with it, better not to have more.

  • Matt

    I’m no fan of big sugar, but I am deeply concerned about the sugar sweetened beverage tax. This tax disproportionately targets minority and poorer people while exempting the sugar-laden treats favored by the whiter and more affluent. Sodas, which would be taxed, are disproportionately consumed by the former population. Starbucks and artisanal gelatos, which are not taxed under the proposal, are disproportionately consumed by the latter population. Essentially, the white parents of Berkeley want to tell the minority parents how to raise their children, and are using a regressive tax to show their disapproval.

    The just way to improve kids’ health is to reduce poverty and inequality, not to bludgeon the poor with penalties. That latter path is a republican tactic, and thoroughly un-Berkeley.

  • BBnet3000

    Yeah, its patronizing in the extreme.

  • guest
  • guest

    >That latter path is a republican tactic

    And yet here we have an example of it being pushed by “progressive” politicians and citizens in Berkeley of all places. So maybe, just maybe, your ideas about what is or isn’t “Republican” are out of whack.

  • Bryan Garcia

    Wow, could NOT have said it better myself!

    This is a regressive tax imposed by the latte-sipping liberal set, whose drinks will NOT be taxed, as far as I can tell.

  • Doc

    Individually were smart, its that when we get together our brains kind-of cloud. Why is that?

  • serkes

    We could raise a small fortune with a whine tax.

    “Berkeley is a Kvetch Free Zone” signs at the border would put people on fair notice.

    Any other supporters?

    Ira

  • djoelt1

    Isn’t the wisdom supposed to be in crowds? Maybe if we crowd together rather than sitting in rows the wisdom will issue forth!

  • Sharon

    Most soft drinks are sweetened by HF corn syrup. This is the health culprit more than sugar. The big companies may not be affected at all.

  • stuckinthemiddle

    I was one of the respondents to this survey and was happy to spend a few minutes on the phone. The one issue I didn’t understand was about taxing owners of vacant commercial buildings per square foot. I’m guessing that the impetus is that some property owners are intentionally keeping storefronts vacant in order to take a loss/write-off instead of accepting low rents and this is to push them away from that strategy. But that’s just a guess. Is there someone who can explain? I answered “need more info” on this question. Thanks.

  • Charles_Siegel
  • Charles_Siegel

    In reality, this sort of sugar-beverage tax has generally been supported by progressives and opposed by conservatives. It is far from being a Republican tactic.

    If you want to know the Republican take on this sort of law, read what Rush Limbaugh has to say about it:

    “What business is it of yours if somebody wants to drink a Gatorade or a
    Coca-Cola or a Pepsi-Cola? What difference is it of yours? Why should
    those people have to pay a tax? Why punish them, if they like it? It’s
    their life! It’s their business. What business is it of yours? … Everything in the world is going to kill us! ,,, Do you realize, folks, we would live forever if we
    didn’t do all these horrible things the left warns us against every day.
    We’d all live forever! That’s the logic that they put forth.”
    http://www.rushlimbaugh.com/daily/2009/05/12/the_war_on_evil_deadly_sugar

    Don’t let your dislike of latte-sipping and gelato-slurping liberals make you oppose a tax that will improve public health. And note that it will do the most to improve the health of groups that drink the most soda. You might as well oppose tobacco taxes or alcohol taxes because they have most impact on the poor: would the poor be better off if they could buy cigarettes more cheaply?

    Note that Berkeley has a minimum wage law coming before council on April 1. If you want to reduce poverty and inequality, it makes sense to support that law (as I do) – but it does not make sense to oppose a law that would improve the health of the poor and of every economic class.

  • M.E. Lawrence

    I imagine that soft drinks in general, no matter what ingredient adds sugar to them, would be taxed (apart from those sold by small businesses):

    “[Vicki] 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.”

    http://www.berkeleyside.com/2014/02/12/will-berkeley-be-first-in-nation-to-impose-sugar-tax/

  • rhuberry

    Who says taxing this one product in one city will improve the health of the poor? Does anyone really believe it will make a noticeable difference? I mean, it’s not being banned, just being sold for a little more money. There is a big difference in the price of a soda anyway, depending on where one buys it, so price doesn’t deter purchase and consumption. Many kids just drop into the corner store and buy a soda, not paying a whole lot of attention to price. Bulk purchases can be made in any neighboring city. It will put a little more money into the city coffers and make Berkeley citizens feel special for being so ”righteous”.

  • Truth Sayer

    I vehemently disagree that the “sugar sweetened beverage tax” “disproportionately targets minority and poorer people.” Targeting the uninformed regarding excessive sugar, I would agree. Lastly, I believe that poor and minorities also like Starbucks and other sugar laden coffees.

  • Bill N

    THIS was so funny – a spot on. Thanks Ira!

  • Bill N

    Maybe it would encourage new leases but I’d wonder about that. Of course the old Black Oak bookstore space has been vacant for what 4-5 years now? Would it be filled with this? You’ve got to know what else the landlord owns and his general income/tax situation.

  • serkes

    Unlike tobacco, there’s no age limit for the purchase of sugary drinks.

    That said .. anyone know what the demographic profile of tobacco smokers in Berkeley is?

    Ira

  • Guest

    If saying that people should be free to do and be whatever they want to be without being punished for their personal choices is “Republican” maybe I need to rethink my political affiliation.

  • Antonio Noguerra

    Council meetings would take 5 minutes. I’m in!

  • david

    The idea that HFC is different in any way from any other sugar is a myth. Stuffing your face with organic cane sugar will get you just as fat. I’m guessing that the sugar filled coffees at Starbucks won’t be taxed.

  • david

    I’m with you, Guest. I want the Republicans out of my bedroom and the Democrats out of my kitchen. One thing every politician out there seems convinced of is that they are better equipped to make decisions about my life than I. Actually, I’ve read that the single best predictor for good long term health is social activity. So I want a solitude tax. Join a group, or pay a fine. Oh, and since we all agree on the fact that stress causes illness, I want everyone to peddles non-existent threats (“your cell phones are giving you brain cancer!) to have to pay an anxiety tax. And, if you disagree with me, which will offend, and thus stress me, I want a rudeness tax.

  • Chris J

    I like the comment of ‘democrats out of my kitchen’ someone said. While I am not a big fan of sugary drinks, eschewing them as well as much sugar as I can (health reasons only, not a preference), the fact that soft drinks alone are being targeted and not the sugar bomb coffee drinks or the candy bars, well…that makes no sense.

    While I might POSSibly support the bill because it would amuse me to stick it to big beverage companies that sell such crap to an addicted populace, I’m still undecided.

  • guest

    Berkeley voters are well educated but idiosyncratic. Please read the survey results. It’s troubling that parks did so poorly, see #14 and #15 for the much needed increase in the parks tax. If an increase is not approved, there will be layoffs of maintenance staff and facilities will continue to deteriorate. See Scott Ferris staff report of Feb. 11. The question should have been:for the price of a burger and a latte are you willing to save our recreational facilities and the loss of 4-6 jobs in the parks department? Then there’s the GO bond questions #24 and #25 naming some of the pet projects that activists and their Council sponsors want the taxpayers to subsidize. These got bad results too. What to do? The Council needs to show some leadership and put a modest parks tax increase on the ballot and campaign for it, which means all of them, not just those running for re-election. It’s time that the Council show respect and support for staff and stop manipulating them in the interests of a few. It’s a real shame that the survey respondents don’t equate children’s health with recreation, but the kids need to move more and do so under professional supervision in the parks programs. That’s far more important that trying to regulate what they put into their mouths.

  • guest

    The question should relate to the first clause, not the second. We are smart but why don’t we stand up as individuals and say our our mind’s truth? Because:
    1. we are cowards and are afraid of ridicule
    2. we want to be politically correct and get applause for self-righteousness
    3.we don’t know how to speak effective civil discourse without insult
    4. we are basically consumers, even of public services, and only know how to complain
    5. we are lazy and know that if we put forward ideas, we might have to act upon them

  • Sweetie

    Thought you’d enjoy this “comment” as it appeared on my screen:

  • 3rdGenBerkeleyan

    the problem isn’t sugar…its high fructose corn syrup.

  • 3rdGenBerkeleyan

    fat isn’t the only problem, diabetes is the real killer and HFC is linked to elevated rates of Diabetes in the U.S.

  • dto510

    Thanks!

  • mtaysic

    Who is not in support of the parks parcel tax? Im assuming the residents who live in those areas can’t vote on it.

  • mtaysic

    I hope this sugar tax wont affect fruit… love fruit

  • guest

    Check the demographics of the survey. What will go on the ballot if anything for parks is up in the air. If you care, tell your councilmember and the mayor. As for who votes, all eligible to vote citywide.

  • david

    Yes, sure, but HFCS isn’t any worse than any other sugar. It just happens to be the form of sugar that is in sodas. If all HFCs were banned, and only cane sugar were used, we would have exactly the same problem. There is nothing about HFCS that makes it particularly bad for you. Diabetes is a serious problem, but I doubt a nominal sugar tax, or even a revocation of subsidies to corn growers, is actually going to solve it. But it will make us feel better.