Berkeley’s soda tax opens door for similar measures nationwide

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Berkeley’s soda tax opens door for similar measures nationwide

Related tags Soft drink

Mixed outcomes in California on measures to tax sugary drinks show such controversial initiatives can succeed, but it will not be easy. 

Berkeley became the first community in the U.S. to approve a tax on sodas and sugary drinks following the Nov. 4 elections, while San Francisco failed to garner the two-thirds support it needed to pass a similar measure.

As a result, beginning Jan. 1, 2015, shoppers in Berkeley will pay an extra one-cent per ounce on sugar-sweetened drinks and some of the sweeteners used in such drinks, including sodas, energy drinks and presweetened teas, but not on diet drinks, milk products, 100% juice beverages, infant formula, alcohol or medical drinks, according to the measure.

The measures in the liberal- and health-conscious-strongholds of Berkeley and San Francisco were seen by many as a litmus test for whether other communities should pursue such taxes after similar measures have consistently failed elsewhere previously. As such, the campaigns generated significant national attention and prompted opponents to spend more than $10 million in Berkeley alone in an effort to squash the measure and discourage future attempts elsewhere.

“Berkeley voters have shown it can be done,”​ and that “Coca-Cola, Pepsi and the American Beverage Association can no longer count on spending their way to victory,”​ Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest said in a Nov. 4 statement.

“But they better keep their checkbooks out,”​ he taunted. “We expect that cities, towns and state legislatures all over the country are taking a closer look at what happened in Berkeley and many will be readying similar campaigns to tax soda in the years to come.”

The results in Berkeley “will have significant ramifications for the rest of the country and it will serve as a signal for folks in other municipalities that this issue can be taken on and be taken on successfully,”​ agreed Howard Wolfson, senior advisor to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who also has fought to restrict the availability of soda.

“The country was waiting for the damn to break and for a group to be successful in passing a soda tax. Now that people have seen it is possible and doable and popular, there will be a tremendous outpouring of interest for doing this,”​ he added.

Josh Daniels, co-chair for the Yes on D campaign in Berkeley, added that other communities have already reached out to him for guidance on pursuing similar measures. However, they do not want to be named until they have garnered the political base from their communities necessary to win, he said.

Future success is not guaranteed

Success in Berkeley does not guarantee it in other locations – even liberal ones – as the defeat in San Francisco showed.

In San Francisco, 54.4% of voters supported a two-cent per ounce tax on sugary drinks, but a two-third majority vote was necessary for passage because the measure was earmarked as a specific tax with the funds going to nutrition and physical activity programs for children. If the measure was for a general tax, as in Berkeley, it would have needed only 50% of voter support to pass.

San Francisco’s decision to impose a specific tax that required a two-third majority vote to pass likely was the death knell for the measure, which would have passed if it was a general tax, said Larry Tramutola, a consultant who worked with the Berkeley campaign to pass the soda tax referendum. During a conference call Nov. 5, he acknowledged, the decision on how to tax sugary beverages needs to be a locally made one that fits the community.

Martin Bourque, executive director of The Ecology Center in Berkeley and supporter of the tax, added on the call other lessons learned on the campaign that could help other communities pass similar measures include starting the campaign early and building a broad coalition of community support so the beverage cannot divide and conquer the community.

ABA supports other “meaningful solutions” to obesity

The American Beverage Association opposed the soda taxes in Berkeley and San Francisco and instead encourages communities considering similar measures to instead focus on other “meaningful solutions that address the complex issues of obesity.”

It adds in a Nov. 5 statement: “People don’t support taxes and bans on common grocery items, like soft drinks. That’s why the public policy debate has largely moved on from taxes and bans.”

Other actions ABA has taken and says are more effective include supporting “parents by removing full-calorie sodas from schools, cutting calories available from beverages in schools by 90%,” ​and “empowering consumers to make the choices that are right for them by placing clear calorie labels on the front of all our products,”​ as well as offering smaller portion-sizes and no- and low-calorie options.

“These efforts are in place, working and will have an impact far greater than a tax ever could,” ​it said. 

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