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.
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.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Berkeley puts sugar tax on November ballot (07.02.14)
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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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