Nation’s first soda tax could come to Berkeley

Berkeley could become the first city in the country to tax sugar-sweetened drinks. (George Frey - BLOOMBERG)
Berkeley could become the first city in the country to tax sugar-sweetened drinks. (George Frey /Bloomberg)

California’s well-known hotbed for liberal activism could become the first city in the country to put a tax on sugary drinks. The Berkeley City Council unanimously decided Tuesday to put the 1-cent-per-ounce tax on the ballot this November. Approving the tax would mean a major defeat for the soda industry, which has spent millions to crush the effort nationwide. More than a dozen local groups from the NAACP to the Berkeley Dental Society have pledged support for the “Berkeley vs. Big Soda” campaign, which legislators have pitched as a public health and social justice issue.

“Big Soda will claim that we are attacking a product that is beloved by low-income folks,” council member Laurie Capitelli said, “but those are the people who are coming to us and asking us to put this on the ballot.”

The American Beverage Association, Coca Cola and PepsiCo have led the battle against soda taxes, spending more than $40 million in 2010 alone to combat the effort in Congress. The industry also spent aggressively to fight off proposed taxes in more than a dozen states from Illinois to Texas.

Illinois last tried to approve the tax in May, with lawmakers predicting up to $400 million in new revenue. But the bill failed after intense pressure from the Illinois Manufacturers Association, which warned of job losses across the state.

Some researchers say they have found evidence that the soda tax could actually work. A study published last month by the American Journal of Agricultural Economics found that a 6-cent tax on a 12-ounce can of Coke or Pepsi would mean an average reduction of 5,800 calories per person every year.

But the American Beverage Association has cast doubt that the tax would affect the country’s swelling obesity epidemic. “Taxes don’t make people healthy,” the association’s public affairs director, Chris Gindlesperger, told reporters.

Two other towns in California, El Monte and Richmond, have already rejected similar measures. But activists in Berkeley — the state’s most liberal city – are optimistic that they can succeed against the flood of spending from soda companies. California lawmakers have already targeted sugar as a health hazard.  The state Senate approved a bill in May that would require safety warnings on beverages that contain more than 75 calories, though it has stalled in committee.

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