On Tuesday, voters in Berkeley, Calif. passed the country's first soda tax with a whopping 75 percent of the vote, a big defeat for the beverage industry, which had poured millions of dollars into blocking the tax.
In a campaign year when control of the Senate was at stake and states across the country were voting on marijuana legalization, the beverage industry's attention was focused on Berkeley.
The university town—population 117,000—was considering a new tax on sodas and other sugar drinks, designed to deter consumers from drinking beverages that public health officials agree are leading to dangerous levels of obesity.
The initiative triggered a huge reaction from the industry. Over at least 10 months, beverage companies spent nearly $2.5 million, or roughly $30 for each registered voter living in Berkeley, to stop the measure, running ads on everything from public transportation, to local newspapers and television, according to local media.
More than $600,000 was spent on campaign literature, $530,000 to pay a media company to place ads, $62,000 on mailings, and $44,000 on polling were spent by the campaign, according to filings published by Berkeleyside. An investigation by ABC News even uncovered advertising on Craigslist offering $13 an hour for those willing to march with signs against the measure.
"They bought virtually every form that you can buy for advertising," said Larry Tramutola, a political strategist and consultant to the coalition, in a conference call organized by advocates of the tax on sugar-sweetened beverage products on Wednesday. "And I think in some way their aggressive bullying tactics in Berkeley backfired."
The industry was spending so much that former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, famous for trying to pass his own anti-soda measures, began pouring in money, too.
"We didn't come in to make a contribution until we became concerned that the opposition spending was enough to alter the vote," said Harold Wolfson, senior adviser to Bloomberg, in the conference call. Bloomberg donated nearly $400,000 to the pro-tax campaign.
The beverage industry's fixation on Berkeley is a testament to its growing nervousness that America is falling out of love with sodas and other sugary drinks. Per capita consumption of soda is down almost 30 percent since its peak in 1998, according to data market research firm IBIS World.
And the fight in Berkeley underscores the lengths to which soda makers are willing to go to block soda tax measures. The industry has spent more than $100 million in the past five years to stop dozens of similar taxes in other cities and states across the United States.
Berkeley's new sugary drinks tax, which will take effect on January 1, will look a lot like the one passed in Mexico last year, which has been credited with a marked reduction in the country's soda intake. Sodas, sports drinks, sweet teas, and all other beverages injected with added sugar will cost an extra penny-per-ounce for consumers. Exceptions will include beverages with recognized nutritional value, like sweetened milk and meal replacement drinks.
All the money collected in Berkeley, which is expected to amount to as much as $1 million annually, will go to the general fund, a move that allowed the measure to pass in the city with only a 50 percent majority (in San Francisco, a similar measure received 54 percent of the vote but failed to pass because it required a two-thirds majority).
In many ways, it's not surprising that Berkeley, a city famous for its progressiveness, is the first in the country to pass a soda tax. Berkeley, after all, has repeatedly been at the frontier of other health legislation, especially stringent smoking laws. In 1977, city become the first place to limit smoking in public places. And last year the community voted to ban cigarette use in all multi-unit housing in the city.
The question now is whether other towns will follow Berkeley's lead.
The industry says it's doubtful since it says Berkeley is an outlier.
"They've finally found the lowest form of low-hanging fruit," said Chris Gindlesperger, senior director of public affairs for the American Beverage Association. "Berkeley is not representative of the rest of the country."
That sentiment, however justified, might be missing the point. The key question isn't so much whether the rest of the country looks like one of its more liberal cities; rather, it's whether it has the potential to be inspired by it.
"The country was was really waiting for the dam to break here, and a group to lead an effort like this that was successful in passing a soda tax," said Wolfson. "There will be a tremendous outpouring of interest around this issue."