Will Berkeley Tax Soft Drinks to Discourage Consumption?
By Doug Oakley Staff Writer Bay Area News Group firstname.lastname@example.org
BERKELEY -- Voters in November will weigh a new 1-cent-per-ounce tax on soft-drink distributors in the city as a way of discouraging sugar consumption and improving health, following a unanimous City Council vote to place the item on the ballot.
The soft-drink industry and backers of the Sugar Sweetened Beverage Tax already are gearing up for a fight over whether the drinks cause health problems like diabetes, obesity, heart disease and cancer, and whether a tax will discourage people from buying and drinking the sugary beverages.
Councilwoman Linda Maio said the group Berkeley vs. Big Soda likely will spend "a couple hundred thousand" dollars trying to get the measure passed between now and November.
"We know the soft-drink industry is going to put in millions, but we can't counter that," Maio said. "So it's going to be a grass-roots campaign. We know who our people are. It's just a matter of reaching out door to door."
Roger Salazar, spokesman for the group Californians for Food and Beverage Choice, which is spearheaded by the American Beverage Association, said he's not sure how much his organization will spend.
"We haven't gotten to that point yet," Salazar said. "We'll see what we have to do. These kinds of taxes we know won't change behavior. This is a regressive tax on common grocery items, and it won't make people in Berkeley any healthier."
The tax will need a simple majority of 50 percent plus one vote to pass. In March, the City Council polled 503 Berkeley voters, finding that 66 percent said they would vote for the tax.
Richmond tried to put a soda tax on the ballot in 2012, but the initiative was resoundingly defeated by a 2-to-1 margin.
If Berkeley's measure passes, the money collected won't go directly into any kind of health-related fund. A Sugar Sweetened Beverage Product Panel, whose members will be medical professionals appointed by the City Council, will make recommendations on how to fund programs to reduce the consumption of soft drinks and other sugar-sweetened drinks.
"Our goal is to tax the industry and then follow the oversight committee's advice," Maio said.
During Tuesday's council meeting, about a dozen speakers lined up to talk in favor of the measure, with three speaking against it.
One of those against the measure is Ted Mundorff, CEO of Landmark Theatres, which has 50 movie theaters across the country, including in Berkeley.
"We operate two businesses here to the tune of $4 million in income," Mundorff said. "If we could solve obesity and diabetes with a 1 cent tax, I would say, 'Bring it on -- let's do 2 cents.' But it's not going to do anything but hurt business."
Lynn Silver, a pediatrician and a senior adviser at Public Health Institute in Oakland, disagreed.
"What you are proposing is a chronic disease prevention best buy of all time," Silver said. "It puts the burden on the right people making extraordinary profits pushing this stuff on our families."
Mayor Tom Bates closed discussion on the item by urging backers of the measure to be prepared for a big fight.
"There's going to be lots of opposition and lies, and they are going to be sending people door to door with misinformation," Bates said. "This is not the end; it's the beginning."