Berkeley passes first in the nation soda tax
on November 5, 2014
Berkeley has become the first city in the country to pass a sugar-sweetened beverage tax in an effort to combat childhood obesity and diabetes, according to Josh Daniels, co-chair of the Yes on D campaign.
As the polls closed Tuesday night, an energetic crowd, many of whom wore black t-shirts emblazoned with the words “Berkeley vs. Big Soda,” clapped and cheered within the Yes on D campaign headquarters on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley.
“Today is a historic day for our kids’ health. Today is the day when the tides turn on big soda,” Martin Bourque, executive director of the Ecology Center, told the excited crowd.
Assemblymember Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) said Berkeley is an “inspiration” to the rest of the country.
“Nobody beats Berkeley! Nobody ever has! Nobody ever will!” she cried to resounding cheers.
No on D spokesman Roger Salazar said the measure passing in Berkeley was “unfortunate, but not unexpected,” given the “dubious” measures the city has passed over the years.
He added that similar soda taxes have failed in 30 places across the country over the past five years. Berkeley doesn’t look like mainstream America, he said.
“Berkeley prides themselves on being different, they’re a little eclectic,” he said. “They by no stretch reflect what the electrics will be like in any other city or state.”
With all 107 precincts reporting, 75.12 percent of voters were in favor of Measure D, which will tax distributors of sweet beverages in Berkeley one-cent per ounce.
A simple majority vote was required for the tax money to be funneled to the Berkeley general fund. Health experts will recommend to the city council where the money be spent.
A similar measure that would have taxed distributors of sweet beverages 2 cents per ounce failed earlier that night in San Francisco. The proposed San Francisco soda tax needed two thirds of votes in favor of the tax in order for the funds to go toward children’s nutrition and physical education programs.
Another soda tax was defeated overwhelmingly in Richmond in 2012. About 67 percent of voters were against the measure. During the Richmond campaign, the American Beverage Association (ABA) spent $2.5 million campaigning against Measure N.
In Berkeley, the No on D campaign had nearly two and a half times the funding as the Yes on D campaign. The American Beverage Association has poured more than $2.2 million into the Berkeley No on D campaign–more than 99.5 percent of the campaign’s funding, according to documents filed on the City Clerk’s website.
Meanwhile, Yes on D campaign contributions totaled in nearly $1 million ($922,492.55.) Former mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg has funded more than 70 percent of the campaign. Other notable contributors were the American Heart Association, which gave $23,000 and the Center for Science in the Public Interest which gave $15,000.
Health advocates in Berkeley drew lessons from the Richmond’s Measure N defeat in order to pass the sugary beverage tax.
Laurie Capitelli, an executive member of the Yes on D campaign, said he took Jeff Ritterman, the former Richmond city council member who put forth Measure N in Richmond, to lunch nearly a year and a half ago to ask him about the Richmond soda tax campaign and what Berkeley needed to do to pass a sugary beverage tax.
“Number one, [Ritterman] said, we had to enlist every community before Big Soda got to them,” Capitelli said.
Next, the supporters of the campaign focused on preparing people for an “avalanche of advertising” against Measure D, he said.
Vicki Alexander, co-chair of the Healthy Child Coalition, said the Berkeley City Council and School Board were 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 Bourque, executive director of the Ecology Center.
“This really is a groundswell of community voices that are coming together on this,” Bourque said in September.
In Berkeley, support for the campaign cut across ethnic boundaries. Berkeley vs. Big Soda had the support of the entire City Council, which included two African-American Council members.
“[Berkeley and San Francisco] aren’t polarized along the same lines that they were in Richmond,” Bourque said.
Ritterman said he doesn’t expect Richmond to try passing another soda tax anytime soon. Richmond’s politics are currently dominated by Chevron, he said, and the city will most likely be focused on settling the lawsuit filed in response to the 2012 Chevron fire and dealing with the company’s $1 million modernization project.
“I don’t think there will really be the political space to be looking at that [another soda tax] in the foreseeable future,” he said.
However, Ritterman expects there to be a national interest in whether Berkeley can develop strategies with the money generated by the soda tax that improves childhood health outcomes.
“It will open a door in what are the public health interventions that we have to do in order to turn the tide of early childhood diabetes,” he said.
The passage of the soda tax is a “feather in the cap of those taking on corporate dominance,” he added.
Ritterman said Berkeley is the second place in the world to implement a soda tax as part of a health initiative. The country of Mexico implemented a soda tax designed to benefit public health in January. Researchers from the University of North Carolina and the National Institute of Public Health of Mexico compared soda consumption from the first three months of 2014, when a soda tax was in place, against the first three months of 2013, when there was no soda tax. Researchers found that soda consumption dropped by 10 percent and an increased number of people bought diet drinks and bottled water, he said.
“It was a good start for them and shows that soda taxes can work,” he said.
Borque said that although people might say that a sugar-sweetened beverage tax could only pass in Berkeley, he disagrees. Berkeley was one of the first cities to have gardening and cooking programs in schools and the concept has since spread across the state. Berkeley was also an early adopter of no smoking ordinances, he said.
“It’s often pioneering, innovative university towns that take the first step,” he said.
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