Berkeley councilman faces PR man in ‘soda tax’ debate

Councilman Laurie Capitelli speaks to the crowd at the debate at the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce Monday. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Councilman Laurie Capitelli speaks to attendees at a debate on the city’s proposed soda tax at the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce on Monday. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Though they were arguing about sugar, Councilman Laurie Capitelli and Los Angeles PR man Matt Rodriguez were anything but sweet to each other at a Monday debate about a ballot measure set to come before Berkeley voters in November.

The lunchtime discussion, hosted by the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce, was about the controversial Berkeley sugar-sweetened beverage tax set for the November 2014 ballot.

Capitelli, one of the initiative’s main proponents, argued for the tax on behalf of the grassroots group Berkeley vs. Big Soda, likening it to the 20th century movements to begin taxing tobacco products. Matt Rodriguez, of Los Angeles-based public relations firm Rodriguez Strategies, represented the “No Berkeley Beverage Tax” campaign and argued that the tax would be regressive and harmful to business and the broader community.

The event was hosted by the Chamber in conjunction with the Berkeley NAACP and the local branch of the League of Women Voters. The groups plan to host a series of non-partisan events to educate voters before the November election. About 30 spectators attended the RSVP-only event.

Each side had 10 minutes to lay out its arguments, followed by a question-and-answer session with the audience.

Read more Berkeleyside 2014 Election coverage.

The measure, if approved by voters, would impose a one-cent-per-ounce charge on the distributors of sugar-sweetened beverages and artificial sweeteners. It would be the first such tax passed in the country. A similar measure was voted down in Richmond in 2012 after a $2.7 million campaign by the soda industry.

Laurie Capiltelli. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Laurie Capiltelli. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Neither debater pulled punches. “We are in a situation where we are poisoning our kids,” said Capitelli. “We’re in a situation where we are giving our kids liquid sugar that will ultimately kill some of them,” in reference to rising obesity rates and the diabetes epidemic, which have particularly affected communities of color.

Rodriguez emphasized the specific language of the proposal, which he described as a political move rather than a thorough policy shift to improve public health.

“This is not really a serious public policy effort,” he said. “I understand that we’re an easy target, but this isn’t a … serious attempt to deal with obesity.”

Rodriguez argued that the language of the proposal, which would tax the distributors of sugar-sweetened beverages and artificial sweeteners, is too specific for a bill that claims to put obesity in the crosshairs.

“This is not going after the main driver of calories in the American diet, which is actually desserts. It’s sweets, things like breads, cakes, pastries… if they were serious about obesity, and obesity is a more complex issue, they would have gone after desserts as well,” he argued.

Capitelli said the proposed tax would ideally be the first step in a longer transition toward better health.

“This is an incremental beginning,” he said. “We want to start the discussion and start the process. And in terms of what happens in the future, we may start taxing donuts too.”

Matt Rodriquez. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Matt Rodriguez. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Rodriguez also made the point that even though the tax would be added at the distributor level, it would likely still be passed on to consumers. He argued Monday that the tax is regressive and would hurt the already-struggling low-income residents and small businesses of Berkeley.

“It is going to hit lower-income people harder,” he said. “A regressive tax, by definition, is a tax on lower-income folks.”

Capitelli drew attention to the American obesity epidemic, and the soda company marketing that he says makes sugary beverages so dangerous.

“There is a huge outcry from the community to move forward and mold a policy that will incrementally move forward and increase our health. I see this as one opportunity to move forward… What is more regressive than getting diabetes?” he asked.

Rodriguez raised an issue with the exemptions in the bill, which would allow companies to distribute milk-based beverages in Berkeley without paying the tax. Rodriguez cited Hershey’s milkshake drinks and Starbucks’ hot chocolate and Frapuccino beverages as examples of high-sugar, high-calorie drinks that would go untaxed because they are milk-based.

But whether or not these sugary milk-based drinks would be taxed under the measure was a point of contention between the two sides.

Joshua Daniels, president of the Berkeley School Board and co-chair of Berkeley vs. Big Soda, did not attend the debate but weighed in afterwards. He said Tuesday that Rodriguez’s claims about exemptions in the bill were exaggerated.

“To say that a drink at Starbucks is not not covered is highly misleading,” Daniels said, “because it ignores the fact that the syrup used to make that drink is covered by the tax.”

According to Daniels, companies like Starbucks would owe tax on any sugary syrup used to make their drinks. That syrup is one of the products brought into Berkeley by distributors. Daniels acknowledged that drinks such as pre-made Hershey’s milkshakes, which have 472 calories per bottle according to CalorieKing, would not be taxed.

“If Mr. Rodriguez thinks that that [Hershey’s milkshake] is an unhealthy drink, maybe he should tell his clients not to sell it,” said Daniels. Rodriguez could not be reached for comment about Daniels’ claims.

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

Berkeley puts sugar tax on November ballot (07.02.14)
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

    Which part of that proves, conclusively, that a 25¢ per pack tax (and no other factors) cut the smoking rate in CA in half? How did the study create a control to make sure that no other factors played a part in the decline of smoking?

  • guest

    In what way do any of these attacks change the fact that it would be much harder to piss away the funds raised by this tax if they were allocated to a specific use?

  • Fruit Juice as bad as soda!

    Juice As Bad As Soda, Docs Say

    “All of these beverages are largely the same. They are 100 percent
    sugar,” Dr. David Ludwig, an expert on pediatric obesity at Children’s
    Hospital Boston, said recently. “Juice is only minimally better than

    The trouble is that parents who are quick to limit a
    child’s soft drink consumption often overlook or even encourage juice
    indulgence thanks to the beverage’s good-for-you image.

    But that image can be overstated. Though healthy in moderation, juice essentially
    is water and sugar. In fact, a 12-ounce bottle of grape soda has 159
    calories. The same amount of unsweetened grape juice packs 228 calories.

  • CarolunS

    One question is whether soda itself is actually the causative factor and another question is whether reducing soda consumption would actually have any impact on these health outcomes and a third question is whether the tax would reduce soda consumption. You can find scientific literature on both sides of all these questions. These are all pretty hypothetical issues at this point. No one has demonstrated that reducing soda has any impact on any health outcomes, and no one has demonstrated that this tax would have any effect on reducing soda anyway. Kaiser KA, Shikany JM, Keating KD, Allison DB. Will reducing sugar-sweetened beverage consumption reduce obesity? Evidence supporting conjecture is strong, but evidence when testing effect is weak. Obes Rev. 2013 Aug;14(8):620-33.

  • DisGuested

    Suggesting serious reform to Social Security before it’s too late makes one a “right-wing ideologue.” Sticking one’s fingers in one’s ears while it collapses of its own unsustainability makes one a Progressive Visionary™. Good to know.

  • Fruit Juice as bad as soda!

    No tax on fruit juice in this ballot measure! Why? Because this is based on EMOTION not SCIENCE.

  • guest

    The word Scientism is so eighties postmodern.

  • guest2

    I’m really starting to have a problem with the whole consumer-as-victim thing, and I think I’d prefer it if the government treated me like an adult who can make my own choices about what I put in my mouth.

  • guestguestguest

    It’s been around a lot longer than the eighties, kiddo.

  • DisGuested
  • another guest

    The studies demonstrate a direct causative influence between soda consumption and diabetes or soda and heart disease, etc. They are controlled for confounding factors. Your comments trying to create confusion/ doubt about the science are a transparet attempt to prevent the measure from passing and to assure that the soda industry keeps making millions on the backs of our children.

  • guest

    I said “abolishing Social Security”
    You say “serious reform to Social Security”

    Two different things, so you still leave us with the question “Are you in favor of abolishing Social Security?”

  • RealityCheck

    > I’m a lot more worried by [the municipal government of a largish town] than [ a powerful multi-national corporation]

    You might want to check out reality, friend.

  • guest

    There is a general consensus that soda is unhealthy. You are just quoting one doctor who says fruit juice is bad, and even he says it is “minimally better than soda.”

  • Fruit Juice as bad as soda!

    A general consensus used to say that it was acceptable to own black people as slaves.

    Doing anything based on a “general consensus” rather than facts isn’t very bright.

  • guest

    In what way does your comment change the fact that Berkeleyside commenters will complain about absolutely anything?

  • guest

    You are probably a lot more worried about the Berkeley City Council than about the Koch brothers and Rupert Murdoch combined.

  • guest

    Establishing the “facts” based on a single quote isn’t very bright.

  • DisGuested

    Like Mr. Zip in Zap Comix #1, the Limousine Leninists of Berkeley’s ruling caste love to stamp out creeps and slobs!

  • guest

    I have got to admit that you are an interesting character. I would never have expected you to quote Zap Comix.

    Can you tell me what “diddy wah diddy” means?

  • CarolunS

    These studies are not causative. They are observational studies of associations and not all studies agree. There can certainly be residual confounding and selection bias. Furthermore there is no evidence that this intervention works to have the effect. The science on this is far from being settled. that’s why there are still discussions at scientific meetings with reasonable scientists holding different views. I have nothing to do with any industry.

  • guest

    No doubt, guestguestguest, but I think its use really took off when academics in the humanities decided to challenge the primacy of the sciences by suggesting that all perspectives were equally valid because all conclusions about the nature of reality are socially constructed. That means that these academics could weigh in in topics that they knew nothing at all. And scientists that object by referring to, you know, actual data, associated with scary numbers and such, could be dismissed as practicing “scientism”.

  • guest

    And poor people are so stupid that bus-stop signs and billboards are enough to dramatically change their eating habits? Please.

  • DisGuested

    As an example: When the New York Times treats qi in Chinese Medicine as some sort of “clinically unproven hypothesis,” I know that Scientism is alive and well and amply subsidized by the Medical-Pharmaceutical-Academic Complex. And I have worked for mainstream peer-reviewed medical journals.

  • DisGuested

    No surprises here, I am Hegel’s revenge on the Class of ’68.

    Re: Diddy Wah Diddy: You need to ask Blind Blake. Or Captain Beefheart.

  • Charles_Siegel

    The usual definition of scientism is a bit different from what DisGuested is saying here:

    Scientism is belief in the universal applicability of the scientific method and approach, and the view that empirical science constitutes the most authoritative worldview or most valuable part of human learning to the exclusion of other viewpoints.[1]
    It has been defined as “the view that the characteristic inductive
    methods of the natural sciences are the only source of genuine factual
    knowledge and, in particular, that they alone can yield true knowledge
    about man and society.”[2] The term scientism frequently implies a critique of the more extreme expressions of logical positivism[3][4] and has been used by social scientists such as Friedrich Hayek,[5] philosophers of science such as Karl Popper,[6] and philosophers such as Hilary Putnam[7] and Tzvetan Todorov[8]
    to describe the dogmatic endorsement of scientific methodology and the
    reduction of all knowledge to only that which is measurable.[9]

    Karl Popper was the early twentieth century’s most important philosopher of science and was anything but a post-modern relativist.

  • bob

    “Rodriguez also made the point that even though the tax would be added at
    the distributor level, it would likely still be passed on to
    consumers. He argued Monday that the tax is regressive and would hurt
    the already-struggling low-income residents and small businesses of

    Ya you know cigarette taxes should be repealed too since uh, they’re regressive and hit low-income residents too…. Wow, Rodriguez is a total dip-tard, clearly just a useful idiot to the billionaires in our corporatocracy hell-bent on killing people for money as long as they can get away with it.

  • guestguestguest

    Thank you. Karl Popper is due for a revival, now that postmodernism seems to be burning itself out.

  • guest

    Thanks, guestguestguest, you did indeed. Unfortunately, in addition to publishing reams of postmodern gibberish, these same academics have spent decades trying to indoctrinate college kids. The result has been massive numbers of highly educated scientific illiterates who feel free to opine sagely about issues involving science.

  • guest
  • guest

    So check the nutritional information yourself. Fruit juice is usually even more calorie-dense than sodas and offers only the slightest nutritional benefits.

    Liquid sugar is still liquid sugar, even if the source is natural.

  • guest

    The basic science seems very simple. Soda is a very large source of nutritionally empty calories for Americans (almost a gallon of sugar beverages a week). If Americans don’t cut back on other food, they will gain weight because of the extra calories. If Americans do cut back on other food, their health will suffer because they are substituting empty calories for healthy foods. Needless to say, Americans are gaining weight.

    The basic science is about as simple as the basic science of global warming. Scientists have known for a long time that carbon dioxide is a heat trapping gas. We have raised the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 400 ppm, and temperatures are going up. Yet there are still denialists who claim that there is no scientific proof that co2 emissions cause global warming.

  • guest

    and the causative relation also seems very obvious: if you eat more calories, then you will gain weight (all else being equal).

  • guest

    Or, possibly, much of Chinese Medicine is based on a mix of pragmatic uses of physiologically active herbs canny diagnostics and magical thinking.

  • CarolunS

    This is all a pretty good illustration of why no one who opposes the soda tax is likely to speak out very publicly. At scientific meetings, these topics are under discussion. Yet here when I mention this, I immediately get accused of trying to create confusion and doubt about the science, with an unsubtle attempt to accuse me of being in collusion somehow with the soda industry, which I am not. Well, guess what. The science isn’t settled. The jury is out on a lot of aspects. One is whether the tax will actually result in lower consumption. One is whether people will switch and if so to what. One is whether this would have any measurable impact on the prevalence of obesity. Etc. Your attempts to conflate reasonable scientific inquiry with climate change denialism are unjustified.