Berkeley City Council Puts Soda Tax on November Ballot

(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

By Charles Siler, Berkeleyside

Berkeley City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to include a proposal that would tax distributors of sugar-sweetened beverages on the November ballot.

Voters will decide on penny-per-ounce tax on soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages.
The measure, which proposes a one-cent-per-ounce charge at the distributor level, would be the first such tax passed in the country. Richmond tried to pass a similar tax in 2012, but it was voted down after a $2.7 million campaign by the soda industry.

Supporters of the tax point to studies linking sugary drinks to childhood obesity and diabetes. Members of community organization Berkeley vs. Big Soda gathered on the steps of city hall before the Tuesday night meeting to voice their support of the tax.

“We want to support our kids. We don’t want our kids to be sick with diabetes,” said Dr. Vicki Alexander, co-chair of the Berkeley Healthy Child Foundation, at the council meeting. “We know that we can change that trend.”

Opponents of the tax said the measure would prove ineffective.

“I agree that diabetes and childhood obesity are big issues. I just don’t necessarily agree that taxation on sweetened beverages or soda is the best way to deal with that,” said Jennifer Skidmore of J&J Vending. “Statistics show that purchasing of sweetened beverages is already on the decline, without taxation.”

Supporters also say the tax is a social justice issue, pointing to the higher rates of obesity in black and Latino communities.

“Research shows diabetes rates in Latino, African-American communities have reached epidemic proportions,” said Xavier Morales, executive director of the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California. “That’s not an exaggeration.”

“Big Soda will claim that we are attacking a product that is beloved by low-income folks,” said Councilmember Laurie Capitelli, “but those are the people who are coming to us and asking us to put this on the ballot.”

Ted Mundorff, CEO and president of Landmark Theaters, which owns both the Shattuck Cinemas and the California Theater, said revenue from the tax would not be earmarked for any healthy initiatives.

“If we could solve obesity and diabetes with a one-cent tax I’d say bring it on, let’s do two cents,” Mundorff said. “But the reality is that this cent is going into the general fund, and it is not earmarked to do anything, except to hurt business.”

Because the measure proposes a general tax, as opposed to a special tax, revenue from the tax would go into the general fund and cannot be reserved for any special purpose. With a special tax, the money could be designated for anti-obesity initiatives, such as nutrition programs in schools — but a special tax requires a two-thirds majority vote, while a general tax requires only 50 percent plus one.

The sugar tax on San Francisco’s November ballot is a special tax, and so will require a two-thirds majority to pass, unlike the Berkeley proposal. The San Francisco measure also proposes a tax of two cents per ounce, rather than Berkeley’s one.

Berkeley’s November ballot will read: “Shall an ordinance imposing a 1¢ per ounce general tax on the distribution of high-calorie, sugary drinks (e.g., sodas, energy drinks, presweetened teas) and sweeteners used to sweeten such drinks, but exempting: (1) sweeteners (e.g., sugar, honey,syrups) typically used by consumers and distributed to grocery stores; (2) drinks and sweeteners distributed to very small retailers; (3) diet drinks, milk products, 100% juice, baby formula, alcohol, or drinks taken for medical reasons, be adopted?” Councilmember Linda Maio proposed the new, slightly different language at the Tuesday meeting.

Supporters of the tax acknowledged that in the coming months, the soda industry will likely campaign heavily against the tax measure in Berkeley and in San Francisco.

“I don’t think even if they spent a million dollars they could confuse the people of Berkeley. So I’m not really worried about how much money they spend,” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington. “The people of Berkeley are too smart to be confused.”

“There’s going to be a lot of opposition, there’s going to be lot of lies,” said Mayor Tom Bates. “They’re going to be sending people door to door with distortions, with misinformation, and it’s going to be tough. So we all need to work. This is the beginning, this is not the end.”

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.