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Berkeley to vote on soda tax, looks to Richmond’s Measure N defeat for lessons

on September 24, 2014

Two years after Richmond voters overwhelmingly rejected a soda tax, health advocates in Berkeley and San Francisco are drawing lessons from Richmond’s Measure N defeat to try to pass similar taxes on sugary drinks on Nov. 4.

In Berkeley, campaigners for Measure D, a measure that would tax distributors of sweet beverages in that city one-cent per ounce, say they’ve learned a lot from the challenges Richmond faced in 2012.

“I think Richmond broke the ice,” said Jeff Ritterman, the former city council member who put forward Measure N in Richmond.

Although 67 percent of voters were against the measure, Ritterman said it has affected the way some people think about sweetened drinks and their health.

Sara Soka, campaign manager of Berkeley vs. Big Soda, said people nationwide are more conscious of the harm caused by liquid sugar than they were two years ago. Concerns about childhood obesity, diabetes and tooth decay linked to overconsumption of sweetened drinks, snacks and convenience foods remain high.

“People here are very aware of that. They don’t want industry coming in and trying to pull the wool over their eyes,” she said.

During the Richmond campaign, the American Beverage Association (ABA) spent $2.5 million campaigning against Measure N. That gave Berkeley vs. Big Soda a preview of what they were up against.

“We expect them to spend at least that much, if not more, here,” Soka said.

“It was very clear, in terms of [Richmond’s] defeat, how much the industry would put in to not let this happen,” said Vicki Alexander, co-chair of the Berkeley Healthy Child Coalition (BHCC).

The No on D website had previously posted campaign funds of $300,000 with major funding from the beverage association. Roger Salazar, spokesman for the No on D campaign, confirmed this week that the beverage association had donated an additional $500,000, boosting its campaign coffers to $800,000. The next reporting period is Oct. 4.

When asked for comment on the ballot measures, the beverage association referred media calls to Salazar to speak on its behalf.

“I think anytime you pass poor public policy, it’s important to rally against it,” he said, referencing the past effort to pass a soda tax in Richmond and the current efforts in Berkeley and San Francisco.

Berkeley is aiming for a simple majority vote that is required for tax money to go to the general fund. If it passes, a panel of health experts would recommend to the council where the money be spent. Soka suggested that the decision to pursue 50.1 percent of votes was made, in part, because of the strong opposition Richmond faced.

Berkeley citizens have long been focused on childhood nutrition, according to Alexander of the Healthy Child Coalition. The Healthy Child Coalition received federal funding in 2000 to collaborate with school districts to create gardens and kitchens where children could grow and cook their own food. The U.S. Farm Bill, which funded the programs, was cut around the same time Measure N failed in Richmond, she said. When parents and teachers began thinking of alternative funding sources, the idea of a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages came up.

“To my knowledge, there weren’t concrete discussions for a sugar-sweetened beverage tax in Berkeley until [the campaign in Richmond] actually happened,” she said.

Alexander said the Berkeley City Council and School Board are united in support of the tax. In Richmond, however, the City Council was divided on the issue.

In Berkeley, community members asked that the measure be put on the ballot rather than coming from the Council itself, said Martin Borque, executive director of the Ecology Center.

“This really is a groundswell of community voices that are coming together on this,” Borque said.

In Richmond, the beverage industry’s PAC “poured a lot of money into that system,” former Council member Ritterman said.

Ritterman expects opponents of the tax to use the same campaign tactics in San Francisco and Berkeley, but doesn’t think the money will be as effective this time.

In the current campaign, support cuts across ethnic boundaries. In San Francisco, the Yes on E campaign has gained the support of the African-American faith community, he said, while Berkeley vs. Big Soda has the support of the entire City Council, which includes two African-American Council members.

“[Berkeley and San Francisco] aren’t polarized along the same lines that they were in Richmond,” he said.

However, opponents of Measure D are confident the vote will play out in Berkeley the same way it did in Richmond.

No on D Spokesman Salazar said that the people of Richmond weren’t initially against Measure N. However, once they looked into the measure’s possible impact on grocery prices and the economy, they turned against it.

“Ultimately it was defeated fairly overwhelmingly,” Salazar said. “I think we’ll see something similar here,” he said.

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