Berkeley puts sugar tax on November ballot; could be first city in country to take on Big Soda

Dr. Vicki Alexander, xxxxx, at a rally about the sugar tax before the City Council meeting. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Dr. Vicki Alexander, co-chair, Berkeley Healthy Child Foundation, at a rally about the sugar tax before the City Council meeting. Photo: Emilie Raguso

The Berkeley City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to include a proposal that would tax distributors of sugar-sweetened beverages on the November ballot.

The measure, which proposes a 1-cent-per-ounce charge at the distributor level, would be the first such tax passed in the country. Richmond tried to pass a similar tax in 2012, but it was voted down after a $2.7 million campaign by the soda industry.

Supporters of the tax point to studies linking sugary drinks to childhood obesity and diabetes. Members of community organization Berkeley vs. Big Soda gathered on the steps of the old City Hall before the Tuesday night meeting to voice their support of the tax.

Supporters of a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages were out in force at the City Council meeting. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Supporters of a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages were out in force at the City Council meeting. Photo: Emilie Raguso

“We want to support our kids. We don’t want our kids to be sick with diabetes,” said Dr. Vicki Alexander, co-chair of the Berkeley Healthy Child Foundation, at the council meeting. “We know that we can change that trend.”

Opponents of the tax said the measure would prove ineffective.

“I agree that diabetes and childhood obesity are big issues. I just don’t necessarily agree that taxation on sweetened beverages or soda is the best way to deal with that,” Jennifer Skidmore of J&J Vending testified before council later in the evening. “Statistics show that purchasing of sweetened beverages is already on the decline, without taxation.”

Supporters also say the tax is a social justice issue, pointing to the higher rates of obesity in black and Latino communities.

“Research shows diabetes rates in Latino, African-American communities have reached epidemic proportions,” Xavier Morales, executive director of the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California, told the council. “That’s not an exaggeration.”

“Big Soda will claim that we are attacking a product that is beloved by low-income folks,” said Councilman Laurie Capitelli, “but those are the people who are coming to us and asking us to put this on the ballot.”

Read more Berkeleyside coverage of the sugar tax.

Ted Mundorff, CEO and president of Landmark Theatres, which owns Shattuck Cinemas and the California Theatre, told council that revenue from the tax would not be earmarked for any healthy initiatives.

“If we could solve obesity and diabetes with a 1-cent tax, I’d say bring it on, let’s do 2 cents,” Mundorff said. “But the reality is that this cent is going into the general fund and it is not earmarked to do anything, except to hurt business.”

Because the measure proposes a general tax, its revenue would go into the general fund, rather than be reserved for any particular purpose. With a special tax, the money could be designated for anti-obesity initiatives, such as nutrition programs in schools — but a special tax requires a two-thirds majority vote, while a general tax requires only 50% plus one.

The sugar tax on San Francisco’s November ballot is a special tax, and so will require a two-thirds majority to pass. That measure also proposes a tax of 2 cents per ounce, rather than Berkeley’s 1 cent.

Berkeley’s November ballot will read: “Shall an ordinance imposing a 1¢ per ounce general tax on the distribution of high-calorie, sugary drinks (e.g., sodas, energy drinks, presweetened teas) and sweeteners used to sweeten such drinks, but exempting: (1) sweeteners (e.g., sugar, honey,syrups) typically used by consumers and distributed to grocery stores; (2) drinks and sweeteners distributed to very small retailers; (3) diet drinks, milk products, 100% juice, baby formula, alcohol, or drinks taken for medical reasons, be adopted?” Councilmember Linda Maio proposed the new, slightly different language at the Tuesday meeting.

Supporters of the tax acknowledged that, in the coming months, the soda industry will likely campaign heavily against the tax measure in Berkeley and in San Francisco.

“I don’t think, even if they spent a million dollars, they could confuse the people of Berkeley. So I’m not really worried about how much money they spend,” said Councilman Kriss Worthington. “The people of Berkeley are too smart to be confused.”

“There’s going to be a lot of opposition, there’s going to be lot of lies,” said Mayor Tom Bates. “They’re going to be sending people door to door with distortions, with misinformation, and it’s going to be tough. So we all need to work. This is the beginning, this is not the end.”

Charles Siler is a summer intern at Berkeleyside. He grew up in the North Bay and now attends Tulane University in New Orleans. He can be reached at

Plans firm up for Berkeley soda tax, city parks measures (05.21.14)
Community survey shows difficulties for ballot measures (05.06.14)
Sugar tax hits the sweet spot for Berkeley residents (03.14.14)
Will Berkeley be first in nation to impose soda tax? (02.12.14)

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  • guest

    And, if I may add, we are fed up with being asked how much [more] we are willing to pay to receive basic services such as maintenance for existing parks (or street maintenance). How about no more than we already pay to receive known or predictable city services?

  • Guest

    A little gold never killed anyone!

    Lunatic fringe guys that read non-mainstream economists like Mises and other Austrians that helped at least this berkeleyside reader avoid the dot com crash and the last housing bubble, while everyone else followed the mainstream economists off the cliff(s). And other fringey right wingers like me who believe in the non aggression principle that could have saved us untold blood and treasure by not pursuing a policy of Aggression all over the planet while you followed mainstream demoblicans into how many wars and “kinetic military actions” now? And other whackos like me who believe the drug war is a giant waste of resources designed to enrich the prison/stateside military industrial complex. Yeah, we are the lunatics!

    Keep reading your ny times and listening to national propaganda radio and ride this train to the bottom too. I’ll see you with my bag of gold when these current monetary/housing/debt/dotcon 2.0 bubbles burst! You can call me fringe then too. I could give a rip!

  • Edward C. Moore

    They were “guidelines.” Concededly there is a complicated relationship between dietary guidelines promulgated by the Department of Agriculture and both the American farmers and food producers in addition to the public, but the guidelines were not regulations or laws. Perhaps you believe the public should not be ‘officially’ informed about what constitutes a healthy diet. Some authoritative organ has to condense the scientific knowledge into something average people can understand and follow. If not some arm of the government, who? The “problem” the federal government “created” according to the documentary FED UP was recommending that the public reduce the amount of fat in its diet circa 1950’s or 1960’s. There is nothing wrong or inaccurate about this recommendation. Problems were actually created by the processed food industries’ responses — that is, putting sugar or its substitutes in lieu of fat in virtually all processed food.

    It is the lack of state intervention that is the problem. Lobbyists and well-funded political campaigning has prevented that. It is abundantly clear the industries are not going to change their profitable ways otherwise. Surely the goodness of heart of a majority of stockholders, directors and officers cannot be relied upon because the food processor would then be threatened with a lack of profitability and loss of market share. Lobbyists and marketers can always be found who will prostitute themselves in exchange for affluence.

    How about a nice warning label on the packaging and bottles? Or prohibitions against advertising to children? Or getting the soft drinks and sugary foods out of and a good distance away from schools? These were the kinds of governmental controls which were put into place when it was finally proved in a court of law that BIG TOBACCO had been knowingly lying to us for decades. It will take governmental intervention (as relatively crude a remedy as it unfortunately so often is).

    You really need to see the documentary to have some sense of the horrible health problems and expenses this country and others are going to suffer as a consequence of this pernicious form of free enterprise. Perhaps a good remedy would be to impose the medical costs for diabetes treatment on the processed-food industries and their retailers. It was a relatively rare disease until recently.

  • Guest

    I’ll check out this movie. It sounds like a good one on a topic I am quite interested in.

    The problem is quite clear. I am not disputing that at all. I just don’t think the people that got us here will be the ones to get us out. We should start calling the obesity epidemic the people bubble. like the former and current housing/stock/debt bubbles, they are problems created entirely by the state’s intervention in markets, and if you think about it are quite analogous. Cheap food – bloated people. Cheap money – bloated asset prices.

    These Berkeley citizens that are working on this should be commended for doing something they believe in. Had 100% of the funds been earmarked for nutrition related education (at one point I thought I heard the money would go to busd cooking and gardening) I think this group would have a bit more support. Probably not from me, but generally speaking I think it would have been more palatable to some.

  • Alina

    every council person, not just the white ones, voted for this.

  • Edward C. Moore

    Guest: How has the health crisis caused by the widespread consumption of sugar in our foods been the “entire” result of governmental “intervention in markets,” as contrasted to a result flowing from the normal operation of a market that imagines itself free to promote and sell anything not prohibited by law regardless of its consequences on the weak, poorly educated, handicapped and poor?

  • guest

    Corn subsidies. The Federal Government spends billions every year artificially depressing the price of corn, which is why there is high fructose corn syrup in almost all processed foods in America.

  • guest

    Fair warning to those who think they are helping minorities by supporting this measure:

    (Disclaimer: these numbers are not, strictly speaking, completely accurate because the data on the census of Berkeley giving ethnic breakdowns is from 2010 and the ADA data is from 2012; is doesn’t, however, need to be completely accurate for us to get the point.)

    According to the American Diabetes Association, nationwide in 2012, the group with the highest percentage of Diabetes is people 65 years old and older (25.9%). Next comes blacks (13.2%), Hispanics (12.8%), Asians (9%) and Whites (7.6%).

    In Berkeley, this roughly translates in number of cases to: Black – 1485, Hispanic 1,555, Asian – 1,954, and White – 5,087.

    There’s also this: of these 10,000 or so cases, some are undiagnosed so aren’t being treated; the rest, since they are diagnosed, probably have been or are being treated by a health practitioner. So, why not let them do their jobs? Let’s assume the patients’ doctors have told to avoid certain foods and beverages. Either they listened to them or they didn’t and won’t.

    And to the extent they are part of families and communities including people who are aware of their condition, its causes, risks, treatments and restrictions, they are walking advertisements for good health practices.

    All of this is good enough for me. It’s unclear how the council can be of further help, except maybe by putting up this ballot measure to foster discussion about how it’s better for people to avoid certain ‘food’ products.

  • Edward C. Moore

    Guest: Thank you for responding with a specific circumstance. I am not so quick however to leap to the blanket condemnation of government as a consequence of the corn subsidy, or to extol the virtues of a free-market economy.

    It isn’t so much that fructose is cheap as that it is kept plentiful and at a relatively stable price. Correct me if I am wrong, but was not a major justification for the subsidy promotion of the manufacture of ethanol? How about also just plain-old political power, namely, that of the farm lobby seeking through government to ensure a stable market for its output? How too about our treaty and international convention obligations to help feed the hungry of this world?

    Perhaps its my lawyerly instincts, but it seems to me you jump over a series of logical hurdles to condemn government across the board while silently and by implication exonerating the free market from any responsibility. You seem to believe price determines things of substance. Do you seriously believe a shortage of fructose will cause a change of heart in the food producers and retailers of America? I suspect eliminating the corn subsidy would have a host of undesirable consequences in our economy without in any way seriously impacting the availability of sugar or it’s substitutes in our processed foods. All kinds of miracles come through modern chemistry.

  • Realist

    And “maybe” UFO mermaid vampire aliens will come down and kidnap bigfoot.

  • Realist

    “BIG GOVERNMENT” !!!!!

    is hate e mail!!! for those robo calls – I
    will vote the other way – just for getting 1 !!!! robo calls and 2 !!!!!
    repeated robo calls. All those candidates and campaigners who say
    they hate robo calls and make robo calls!!!! too stupid to name!!! even. And the glossies!!! I’ve had a ½ filled recycle bin full!!! of them –
    and still more to come!!! DON’T PHONE ME AGAIN YOU WHAT’SIT!!! I’D LIKE ALSO TO tell the people that mail
    to stop mailing – but both charges – to DON’t – will be ignored – as you go
    about your too stupid campaigning!!!