Will Berkeley Beat Big Soda?
When you think Berkeley, what comes to mind? There’s a good chance you would say radical political activism. Which is justified – between the free speech movement, the massive protests surrounding people’s park, becoming nuclear free in the 1980s, and the city’s unsurprisingly lax approach to regulating marijuana, Berserkeley is quite the hot bed of political activity.
And on November 4th the city’s voters might further cement Berkeley’s politically progressive reputation when they vote on Measure D, a one cent per fluid ounce tax on sugar sweetened beverages. Commonly known as the soda tax, if approved this would be a first in the nation event, as many cities have tried but ultimately failed to pass similar measures.
I attended a Yes on Measure D rally over the weekend to get a feel for the campaign. The campaign has a distinct youth angle to it – not only do the Yes on D lawn signs show kids in the image, but on the walls of their headquarters they have pie charts drawn as basketballs showing the progress of the campaign. And campaign staff and volunteers bring their kids, too – the younger ones at a table coloring and some of the older ones even getting trained as canvassers.
Indeed, the express intent of the tax is to curb the trend of youth obesity and diabetes. The Berkeley Healthy Child coalition reports that over 40% of the city’s 9th graders are overweight. And African American residents are four times as likely as white Berkeleyans to be diagnosed with diabetes. Further justifying the focus on children, earlier this year the New York Times reported on a recent study that showed weight trends set in early.
The measure’s proponents argue that this has a lot to do with the consumption of sugary drinks, specifically soda. As one of the measure’s lead advocates, Eric Gorovitz, stated in a recent interview, the sheer volume soda consumption makes it a prime culprit in these trends. Beverage companies he says also conduct heavy marketing towards youth and lower income communities. Advocates of Measure D hope that the tax will have a similar effect as cigarette taxes in discouraging consumption.
Opponents say that education is the best means of approaching soda in a healthy manner, and that the tax unfairly targets lower income populations. It’s not up to the state to make decisions on health matters. They also point out that money from the tax would go to the city’s general fund with no guarantee that it be allocated for youth health programs.
The tax’s primary opponent, the American Beverage Association, has placed a lot of resources towards ensuring the measure fails. To date the Association has donated $800,000 towards defeating measure E. Shave a zero off that figure and you’ll have the Yes on D’s campaign war chest. And if history is any guide, the ABA isn’t done yet – during a similar fight in the neighboring city of Richmond in 2012, $2.7 million was spent to defeat the proposed sugary beverage tax.
But I’ve been struck at how the Yes on D folks seem to revel in this underdog, David vs Goliath narrative. After all, the very name of their campaign is Berkeley vs. Big Soda. And the city council – which unanimously supports measure D – has a distinct lemme at em tone when they speak about the issue. Quotes from council members Darryl Moore and Kris Worthington: “No city has been able to successfully pass a sugar-sweetened beverages tax. But it will happen here in Berkeley.” “I’m not really worried about how much money they spend. The people of Berkeley are too smart to be confused.” Supporters can also count a number of health advocacy groups, educational organizations, and some high profile names as their supporters, including author Michael Pollan, famous for his food related books such as The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and former secretary of labor Robert Reich.
Even with such a star studded list of supporters and a passionate corp of volunteer canvassers, though, the fact remains that Yes on D folks are facing an opponent that has triumphed over every attempt to tax it. Since 2009, roughly 30 similar tax proposals nation-wide have all been defeated. And every week Berkeley residents will be receiving mailers telling them to vote no on D. By election day, anti-tax groups are expected to devote millions of dollars into defeating the proposals.
Coincidently, San Francisco voters will also be voting on whether to tax sugary beverages to the tune of 2 cents per fluid ounce – Proposition E. The American Beverage Association is, again, the leading opponent to this, and is expected to disclose on October 6th how much money they have spent in their campaign (don’t expect anything under six figures).
So the eyes of the nation turn to the Bay Area in the soda wars, and the sentiment seems to be if these taxes can’t happen here, so much for them happening anywhere.
What are your thoughts on these measures? Vote and comment on our version of the Berkeley sugary beverage proposal here.