Op-ed: We trust officials to spend soda tax money wisely

In “Beverage companies donate $800,000 to fight soda tax,” an article published on Berkeleyside on Sept. 22, 2014, I laughed when I read ‘No on D’ spokesperson Roger Salazar’s explanation as to why an unprecedented $800,000 from the Washington, D.C.-based American Beverage Association (ABA) is required to fight a local Berkeley political campaign. His reasoning? That extraordinary measures are needed to fight the moral authority of the Berkeley City Council.

Really? Who truly cares about the future of Berkeley’s children? The Berkeley City Council or the American Beverage Association?

During this week of the 50th anniversary of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, the Berkeley City Council’s unanimous pro-soda tax vote reminds us that the role of our democratically elected representatives is to act on behalf of the health and wellbeing of their constituents. When the City Council agreed unanimously to put the soda tax on the November ballot, they chose the right first step towards turning the tide of the sugary-drink-fueled health crisis facing our city and the nation.

The city council acted on incontrovertible evidence associating sugary drink consumption with the development of diabetes and other chronic illnesses. More than 20 years of peer-reviewed scientific research has shown sugary drinks to be a primary contributor to Type 2 diabetes, especially in children. Sugary drinks are the leading and most preventable risk factor for Type 2 diabetes, rates of which have tripled in the last 30 years. In Aug. 2014, the Centers for Disease Control reported that 40% of children born between the years 2000 and 2011 will develop diabetes in their lifetime.

Diabetes is obviously bad for our health, but what about our economy? It is now the primary driver of increased healthcare costs in the U.S. In California, diabetes is tied to one-third of hospital stays, at a cost of $2,200 per hospitalization.

As reported in Berkeleyside, the tax is simple – it levies a penny per ounce tax on the distributors of soda, energy drinks, sports drinks, sweetened teas, and bulk syrups. Most importantly, it covers the sugary drinks that kids consume most; those that are driving this health crisis: nearly 80% of our youth drink at least one 12 ounce can of soda a day, which raises their risk of developing diabetes by 25%.

Built into Measure D’s legislation is an oversight committee that will make recommendations on ways to spend the $1 to  $2 million generated by the tax to improve children’s health, such as Berkeley’s popular school garden and nutrition programs.

The ABA would like Berkeley voters to believe that the City Council cannot be trusted to direct the tax money to these kinds of programs for children.But I know that such a process has been operating in the city for many years, and works very well. For three years, I chaired the commission (Parks and Recreation and now the Children, Youth and Recreation Commission) that advises City Council on how to allocate General Fund money to youth services. This is a careful, thoughtful, well-established practice that has been going on for decades – and in the three funding cycles I was involved in, Council accepted all our recommendations and integrated them into the city’s budget.

Berkeley voters trust their elected leaders to act in good faith on these kinds of recommendations, because, unlike the American Beverage Association, the Berkeley City Council is accountable to the people that elected them.

Mr. Salazar, come to a Council or Commission meeting sometime to hear what real members of our community are doing for Berkeley’s youth. The Berkeley citizens that you would meet there know that the City Council cares deeply about the health and future of Berkeley’s children and that the American Beverage Association does not.

Please join the broad coalition advocating on behalf of Berkeley’s children — the entire City Council, the entire School Board, the NAACP, the League of Women Voters, Latinos Unidos, the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, Robert Reich, Alice Waters, Michael Pollan and many others – Vote Yes on Measure D on Nov. 4.

Berkeleyside welcomes submissions of op-ed articles. We ask that we are given first refusal to publish. Topics should be Berkeley-related, local authors are preferred, and we don’t publish anonymous pieces. Please email submissions to us. Berkeleyside will publish op-ed pieces at its discretion.

Pamela Gray is a volunteer on the Measure D campaign, the previous chair of the Parks and Recreation Commission, and the Children, Youth and Recreation Commission, and a former aide to Berkeley City Councilmember Laurie Capitelli.