By Lance Knobel

No U.S. city has yet been successful in passing a sugar-sweetened beverages tax. Will Berkeley be first? (Vox Efx/Berkeleyside)
No U.S. city has yet been successful in passing a sugar-sweetened beverage tax. Will Berkeley be first? (Vox Efx/Berkeleyside)

Berkeley has embarked on a path that could lead it to becoming the first city in the nation to tax sugar-sweetened beverages.

On Tuesday night the City Council agreed to put a sugar tax on a community poll assessing possible ballot measures for the November 2014 election (the poll will also test opinions on a commercial vacancies tax, a business license tax on rental housing, and a bond and tax measure for parks). A broad coalition of local groups, rallying under the banner of Berkeley vs Big Soda, turned out a crowd of vocal advocates for a 1 cent-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.

“No city has been able to successfully pass a sugar-sweetened beverages tax. But it will happen here in Berkeley,” said City Councilman Darryl Moore.

Moore, usually measured in his remarks at council meetings, delivered an emotive call to support the tax: “We’re the first community to divest. The first community for same-sex partner benefits. The first community to do curb cuts for our disabled citizens. We’re not going to let Big Soda and Big Sugar tell us that we’re going to continue to pollute our young people. We’re prepared for the battle, we’re prepared for the fight.”

Community survey results will be available for the City Council meeting on April 1. Final approval on ballot language is scheduled for the July 1 meeting of the council.

Nearby Richmond had a similar ballot measure in 2012, which was defeated. According to Councilman Laurie Capitelli, tax opponents, led by beverage manufacturers, spent $3.5 million to defeat the Richmond measure. San Francisco also is likely to have a so-called soda tax on the ballot in November.

“It will be a daunting task, because the sugar industry if we proceed with this, will throw millions and millions of dollars at this,” Capitelli said. “They will try to divide us by race, they will try to divide us by class. They will accuse Berkeley of being a nanny state. You can count on a piece of mail in your mailbox every three or four days. It scares the pants off me to think about what they’re going to do when they come after us. They will try to buy people. They will accuse Berkeley and the council of trying to dictate what you can buy. We’re going to get all of that, and we’re going to get it in an avalanche. But we’re letting people poison us and we’re letting them get off scot-free.”

“The reason for such a tax is clear,” said Vicki Alexander, co-chair, Berkeley Health Child Coalition. “Forty percent of Berkeley Unified ninth-graders are overweight. An African-American resident is four times more likely than a white resident to have been diagnosed with diabetes. It is unconscionable to stand by and do nothing. Please be for Berkeley and against Big Soda. The health of our children and our families is at stake.”

Proponents of a soda tax were out in force in neon green at Berkeley City Council. (Lance Knobel/Berkeleyside)
Proponents of a soda tax were out in force in neon green at Berkeley City Council. (Lance Knobel/Berkeleyside)

Alexander explained that the tax would be on distributors of drinks that have added caloric sweeteners, including sodas, sports drinks, energy drinks and sweetened iced teas. It would not apply to diet drinks, alcohol, milk products, infant formula or drinks taken for medical reasons. Small businesses would be exempt.

According to materials distributed by the Healthy Child Coalition, economists have estimated that a penny-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks would reduce consumption by 10 to 15 percent over a decade. Research by UC San Francisco Professor Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo concluded that over a 10-year span, passage of such a tax nationally would prevent an estimated 95,000 coronary heart events, 8,000 strokes and 26,000 premature deaths, while avoiding more than $17 billion in medical costs.

‘Berkeley Voters Are Too Smart’

“The power that’s here is huge,” said Xavier Morales, executive director of the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California. “Berkeley has been a national leader in improving the quality of nutrition in schools. We know that our presence here makes Berkeley a target for Big Soda. But we know that these tactics won’t work here. Berkeley voters are too smart. We have a campaign manager and we are actively fundraising. Together we’re going to win.”

Several councilmembers said there is a difficult choice between placing a special tax — the funds of which could go for a specific purpose, such as nutrition programs in schools — or a general tax — where funds go into the city’s general fund — on the ballot. A special tax requires a two-thirds majority vote, while a general tax requires only 50 percent plus one. Alexander said the campaign estimates a 1-cent tax per ounce in Berkeley would produce $1.5 million annually.

Lizzie Velten, state and national policy coordinator for the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, said statewide polling showed two-thirds support for a special tax on sugary drinks. When the tax was posed as a general tax, however, support dropped to one-third.

Councilwoman Susan Wengraf, who said she was diagnosed as pre-diabetic two years ago, urged consideration of a higher tax rate.

“How did you guys come up with 1 cent per ounce, because I want to make sure this deters people from buying sugared drinks,” Wengraf said. “It doesn’t just cost more, but it helps people make the decision not to buy it at all. I don’t want it to just be making people pay more for the poison. I want people to stop buying the poison.”

KQED News Associate Berkeleyside is an independently owned news website based in Berkeley, Calif. Click here if you would you like to receive the latest Berkeley news in your inbox once a day for free with Berkeleyside’s Daily Briefing email.

  • greylaw89

    Whatever city they are in, these people are creepy. What sort of control freaks are they? We need a ban against “social engineering” by any government, with any politician that tries to get one passed banned from any political position for life. The government shouldn’t get to decide how people want to spend their lives. You don’t want to drink soda or have your kids drink it? Fine. DON’T BUY IT. DON’T TELL OTHER PEOPLE WHAT TO DO.

  • MaureenABA

    agree that obesity is a serious and complex issue. However, it is misleading to
    suggest that soft drink consumption is uniquely responsible for weight gain. In
    fact, only 4 percent of calories in the average American diet are derived
    directly from soda. A regressive tax on soft drinks won’t make people in
    Berkeley healthier, but it will increase their cost of living with higher
    prices at the grocery store. – Maureen Beach, American Beverage Association

  • AmazedJim

    Wake up TAXERS! If Berkeley raises their taxes on sugary drinks, guess what will happen? Their “super smart” residents will purchase their sugary drinks in other cities! Guess what happens then… Revenue for Berkeley goes DOWN!


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