This article originally appeared in The Berkeley Graduate.
A measure taxing soda and sugary beverages is on Berkeley’s November 4 election ballot. A citywide tax, known as “Measure D,” could add a 1 penny-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages and earn the City of Berkeley an estimated $1 million to $3 million a year.
Measure D would include soft drinks, energy drinks, and sweetened teas while exempting diet drinks, milk products, 100 percent juices, baby formula, and alcohol. The tax would impact distributors, rather than consumers as does sales tax.
Advocates believe the tax, by discouraging the consumption of sugary beverages, will help protect children’s health, specifically against diabetes, tooth decay, and heart disease. The NAACP, Berkeley Federation of Teachers, City Council, School Board, food writer and UC Berkeley professor Michael Pollen, as well as Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters all endorse the measure.
Those against the measure warn that it is written so the tax revenue goes into the general fund rather than toward health and wellness programs. Opponents believe Measure D has too many loopholes and could hurt small businesses. Some shops will pay the tax, while shops who purchase their beverages outside of Berkeley, will not. Others wonder about the impact on behavior, since people’s consumption habits may be more difficult to change. Arguments against a soda tax range from “anti-paternalistic,” to ideological, advocating consumer choice and a fear of new taxes.
Berkeley mayor Tom Bates anticipates the 1-cent soda tax “will definitely be a turning point” in reducing obesity.
Last week, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg donated $83,000 in support of Berkeley’s soda tax. Bloomberg’s own attempt for a tax on sugary beverages was deemed “arbitrary and capricious,” by a New York judge before it was able to go into effect. The “Yes on D” campaign has also received $15,000 from The Center for Science in the Public Interest and $23,000 from the American Heart Association. While soda tax proponents have raised $257,000, opponents have spent close to $1.7 million combatting the measure.
San Francisco is considering a similar soda tax, Measure E. Political consultant Maureen Erwin running the “Yes on E” campaign, sees big soda as the new “big tobacco.” If the tax passes, it will be the “first loss for the beverage industry, which has emerged undefeated in more than 30 similar fights in states and cities, from Maine to El Monte, California in recent years,” remarks Helena Evich for Politico.
Sales of sugary beverages have been declining over the past decade, according to the New York Times. Marion Nestle, a nutrition scholar (and visiting professor at UC Berkeley, Spring 2015), observes how soda companies “are totally dug in, fighting soda tax initiatives in places like Berkeley and San Francisco.” Stakes are high, since it could be a case of, “as California goes, so goes the nation.”