By Mina Kim and Lisa Pickoff-White
Berkeley residents will have a chance to tax sugar-sweetened beverages a penny per ounce this fall. The Berkeley City Council voted unanimously on Monday to add the initiative to the November ballot. San Francisco will put a 2-cent-per-ounce tax before voters.
But unlike San Francisco, which designated tax revenues to nutrition programs, Berkeley will direct revenues to the general fund. Berkeley’s measure would require only a simple majority to pass because it’s a general tax. A special tax, like San Francisco’s, requires a two-thirds majority to pass.
“We wanted to be certain that our measure would pass,” said Linda Maio, vice president of the Berkeley City Council. “We know that even though we’ve done very good polling and we have good numbers on support for taxing the industry, that once the industry gets rolling and pours its millions of dollars into a campaign it will have an effect of some kind.”
The city of Richmond’s initiative in 2012 went down with 67 percent of voters rejecting it. Some voters specifically called out the general fund as the reason.
“These lobbies are extremely powerful,” Maio said. “We know our residents, we know our residents are very devoted to kids, and I think that’s what sets us apart.”
The Community Coalition Against the Beverage Tax, funded mostly by the soda industry, spent more than $2 million in 2012 to defeat Measure N in Richmond.
Maio says she feels confident that Berkeley residents will vote for the measure regardless of where the funding goes — 66 percent of residents said they would support the current measure in a poll.
Lawmakers have let proposals die in committee for a statewide penny-per-ounce tax and warning labels on sugary drinks.
Both taxes are on the distributors of sugary beverages and not on consumers. However, consumers are likely to pay the cost, said Roger Salazar with Californians for Food and Beverage Choice, an organization spearheaded by a beverage industry trade group.
“We believe this is a regressive tax on grocery items like sugar-sweetened beverages and it won’t make people in Berkeley any healthier,” Salazar said.
A UCSF study estimated that slapping a penny-per-ounce tax on sweetened beverages would prevent nearly 100,000 cases of heart disease, 8,000 strokes and 26,000 deaths over the next decade.
“The consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages is down nationally at the same time diabetes is up and obesity is up, so we feel it is misleading to single out sugar-sweetened beverages as a unique or significant contributor to health issues,” Salazar said.
Residents of San Francisco and Berkeley can expect a heated campaign from both sides this fall.