Soda-tax showdown heads for ballot in San Francisco, Berkeley

San Francisco and another California city have put soda taxes on their ballots, despite similar efforts’ notable failure in other cities, such as New York.

Eric Risberg/AP/File
The 60-foot long Coca-Cola bottle stands near left field at AT&T Park in San Francisco, Aug. 5, 2006. Residents of San Francisco and Berkeley will vote on whether to impose a per-ounce tax on a list of sugar-sweetened drinks that targets primarily sodas, iced tea, and energy drinks.

A national battle over a so-called soda tax on sugar-sweetened drinks intensified today, as opponents announced plans to significantly increase spending to defeat November ballot initiatives in two California cities.

Residents of San Francisco and Berkeley will vote on whether to impose a per-ounce tax on a list of sugar-sweetened drinks that targets primarily sodas, iced tea, and energy drinks and excludes, among others, milk, medicine, and alcohol.

It's shaping up to be another epic clash between the beverage industry and critics of the so-called nanny state and a growing legion of public health officials and activists convinced that sugary drinks are a fast track to obesity and disease.

Efforts in 30 states to pass similar measures in recent years all failed. Perhaps the highest-profile effort was struck down in June, when New York's Court of Appeals ruled 4 to 2 against former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's ban on "biggy" soda servings larger than 16 oz., after legal attacks by beverage industry trade groups. 

But the new California campaign marks the leading edge of a cultural sea change, some experts say. 

At least one of the two initiatives will pass, says Harold Goldstein, director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy. It's “the beginning of a worldwide movement to tax these products and use the revenues to directly mitigate the harm these products are causing.” 

According to early polls, some 54 percent of San Francisco residents support the measure, while nearly 66 percent of Berkeley voters are in favor. 

As Election Day approaches, the opposition – led by the American Beverage Association (ABA), the leading soft drink trade group – is fighting back with a major push.

On Monday, the opposition campaign filed its intention to increase spending on the campaign to $9.1 million total between San Francisco and Berkeley, said Roger Salazar, spokesman, more than four times the former total. The bulk of the spending, $7.7 million, will be geared toward San Francisco, with the money coming entirely from the ABA, he said.

Politico estimates that, before today, the opposition already had spent more than $2 million to defeat the measures in the two cities.

Supporters of the tax have focused on the health arguments, while opponents have argued that the measure represent government interference that will cost communities jobs. 

According to Mr. Salazar, the tax would have an undue impact on consumers and small businesses. “There are many ways to address the health issues," he says, “but a regressive tax is not one of them.”  

"No matter how you look at it, soda taxes mean fewer jobs," says the ABA in a statement on its website. 

Americans have made it clear they don't support taxes and other restrictions on common grocery items, like soft drinks, adding that soda taxes have unintended consequences on middle-class jobs and small businesses, the ABA says. For these and other reasons, “soda-tax proposals continue to fail wherever they are introduced.” 

What's improving prospects for future votes on a soda-tax is that the science supporting the link between “liquid sugar” and the major public health challenges of diabetes and obesity continues to improve, lending new urgency to the need for action, says Dr. Goldstein.

All social movements take time to develop, he adds, noting the decades it took to produce tobacco legislation. 

“People all over the world are beginning to learn how these sugary drinks are leading directly to diabetes," he says.

Supporters of the tax have tried to counter the opposition by walking the precincts and distributing flyers door to door.

Residents say the deluge is confusing.

“I have flyers from both sides and frankly, I don’t know how I’m going to vote,” says Joan Mikkelsen, a longtime Berkeley resident, contacted by phone. As she sorts through competing packets on the issue, she notes that supporters have a meaningful list of endorsements on their side.

“I see here that the NAACP, the League of Women Voters, and, oh yes, Alice Waters all support the tax,” says Ms. Mikkelsen, who pauses then adds, “Well, she’s a pretty important foodie here in Berkeley. I’ll have to take her position seriously.” 

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