Measure D, a proposal to levy a 1-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks and syrups, passed easily, with 75 percent of voters approving it. Only a 50 percent majority was needed to push the measure through.
Meanwhile in San Francisco, the city’s much larger neighbor across the Bay, a proposal to charge 2 cents per ounce on sugary drinks failed to get the two-thirds majority it needed to pass. San Francisco’s pro-soda-tax coalition had decided to aim for the two-thirds majority so that, if the measure was passed, the tax money collected could be earmarked for specific purposes, specifically nutrition and physical education programs. Berkeley’s soda tax will go to the city’s general fund.
Despite the San Francisco tax’s defeat, voters showed that a majority of them support such a levy on soda, with 54.5 percent favoring the proposal.
Berkeley’s new drink tax will apply to soft drinks and juices with any amount of added sugar, however low. Exempted from the tax will be sweetened milks, creamers, alcoholic drinks, infant formula and juices with only natural sugar content.
The proposed rule was meant to be easy for voters to swallow, and therefore could only apply to drinks that are unequivocally bad for kids, said the writers of the measure.
“We exempted milk products because they have nutritional value,” explained Martin Borque, executive director of the Berkeley-based Ecology Center, and a leader of the Yes on Measure D movement, in a press conference Wednesday. “We don’t like sugar-sweetened milk necessarily and had some internal dialogue about that.”
At the same time, writers of the measure didn’t want to make concessions within the categories of drinks they decided to include, which is why drinks with lower amounts of added sugars will still be subject to the tax.
In the lead-up to the election, Berkeley and San Francisco became proxies for the bigger nationwide battle between big soda and health advocates pushing to raise prices on sugary drinks.
The election was the most expensive in Berkeley’s history. In that city alone, the beverage industry spent $2.4 million on the No on D campaign, according to Berkleyside.com. On the other side, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who ran an unsuccessful campaign to impose a soda tax in the Big Apple, poured $657,000 into supporting Measure D in the weeks preceding the election. About half of that money went to commercials run during the World Series, in which the Giants, the Bay area’s home team, played. The other half went directly to the Vote Yes on Measure D campaign.
And in San Francisco and Berkeley combined, beverage giants spent over $12 million on anti-tax campaigns through the American Beverage Association California PAC, according to MapLight, a nonpartisan research center that tracks money in politics. The Coca-Cola Company was the biggest spender, contributing $5.8 million, with Pepsico close behind at $4.4 million, followed by Dr. Pepper Snapple Corp. at $1.8 million, Red Bull at $140,000 and Sunny Delight at $39,000.
Bloomberg’s foundation decided not to invest in the San Francisco Yes campaign, as it felt the two-thirds majority would be too hard to overcome, said Howard Wolfson, Bloomberg’s senior advisor.
Berkeley: anomaly or sign of a turning tide?
The mood was high among the winners Wednesday.
“It was a really exciting night last night to be in Berkeley,” said Josh Daniels, co-chair of the Vote Yes on Measure D campaign and president of the Berkeley Unified School District Board, at Wednesday’s press conference. “It was an incredible victory, a resounding victory.”
“It’s a landmark day for our kids’ health, not just Berkeley but across the country,” seconded Martin Borque, executive director of the Berkeley-based Ecology Center, a group that advocates for healthy, sustainable urban living.
But whether the pro-soda-tax movement will indeed sweep the country remains to be seen. So far, 30 other municipalities have voted down proposals to levy a tax on sugary drinks.
And after all, Berkeley is a liberal bastion even within a blue state. Will public health activists in more conservative cities and states around the country be able to convince voters to give the government more control over what they eat and drink?
“Let’s not forget that Berkeley is proud of being the most liberal city in America and, based on polling of Americans at-large, far from representative of the rest of the country,” said the American Beverage Association in a statement Wednesday. “So despite what the proponents of the tax may be stating, yesterday’s news in no way portends a trend.”
Borque, exec. dir. of Berkeley’s Ecology Center, points out that, while voters in Berkeley may be overwhelmingly liberal, many of them still face the same diet-related health challenges as people in regions all across the country. Because of this, a soda tax could be just as relevant in Berkeley as in the rest of the country.
“Well many people may think, ‘Oh, California, everyone’s skinny and healthy,’ that’s clearly not the case,” said Borque, pointing to statistics that show otherwise.
A 2013 report on the health status of Berkeley residents revealed that 40 percent of ninth graders in the Berkeley Unified School District were overweight. The mortality rate among African Americans in Berkeley was double that of the mortality rate among Whites, and the second leading cause of death in the city was poor diet/inactivity.
But ABA has argued that a soda tax will only hurt poor people by increasing their grocery prices, and that sugary drinks are only a small contributor to the problem of obesity in America compared to other caloric foods. This is likely the argument it will continue to make in other municipalities that might try to introduce a soda tax.
Proponents of soda taxes, on the other hand, point to studies that drinking soda directly contributes to weight gain and weight-related diseases like diabetes, as well as research showing that a tax on soda could prevent thousands of deaths from weight-related diseases each year.
The Berkeley Vote Yes on Measure D campaigners said they made a concerted effort to make sure poor and minority communities in Berkeley felt the soda tax was in their best interest and to deny ABA’s claims that it would hurt them.
“We knew that we wanted to get in there so that big soda couldn’t get in there and use our groups against us,” said Carol McGruder, co-chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council and public policy and advocacy chair of the Berkeley NAACP. “Sometimes they don’t really talk about what the tax is they just say it’s a regressive tax and it hurts poor people.”
When a soda tax came up for a vote in Richmond, CA in 2012, it was opposed by the NAACP branch there. McGruder said this was because the soda industry courted the organization.
Still, ABA said that the defeat of a soda tax in San Francisco and of a tax on beverage containers in Massachusetts, shows that consumers don’t want their drinks to get any more expensive for the cause of public health.
“If politicians in this country want to stake their reputation on what Berkeley has done, then they do so at their own risk,” said ABA in its statement. “Voters across the country sent a strong message in yesterday’s elections – and it wasn’t a plea for more taxes.”
Consumer health advocates disagree, saying it’s the beverage industry that will be delving into its pockets in the future.
“Coca cola, PepsiCo, and the American Beverage Association can no longer count on spending their way to victory,” said Michael F. Jacobsen, executive director of the consumer health watchdog Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which contributed $15,000 to the Yes on Measure D campaign. “But they better keep their checkbooks out: We expect that cities, towns, and state legislatures all over the country are taking a close look at what happened in Berkeley and many will be readying similar campaigns to tax soda in the years to come.”
Wolfson, Bloomberg’s chief advisor, says he has no doubt the win in Berkeley will inspire other cities.
“I am 100 percent confident that this effort will engender significant interest from local leaders in other municipalities around the country who will be interested in pursuing similar policies.”
One thing is certain: while Berkeley won a battle Tuesday, the war over soda taxes will rage on.© Food Safety News