A super-sized sugar showdown is set for Election Day in California, with the cities of Berkeley and San Francisco poised to become the first in the country to impose a per-ounce tax on sodas and other sweetened beverages.
The vote has set off a fierce head-to-head campaign featuring millions of dollars in spending between the beverage industry and proponents of the tax, led by public health officials and activists armed with studies that say sugar-sweetened beverages are associated with higher rates of diabetes, obesity, heart disease and strokes.
“I think the beverage industry is going to be in for a sea change on Election Day in California,” said Harold Goldstein, executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy. “One or both of those initiatives is likely going to pass.”
Other cities and states will follow suit, he said. No other town so far has been successful despite several attempts in recent years. Mexico passed a soda tax that began in 2014, and sales and consumption have apparently declined as a result.
On Tuesday, voters in San Francisco will consider whether to levy two cents per ounce on sugary drinks. That measure requires two-thirds vote to pass and would generate about $30 million a year. While in Berkeley, voters are weighing a penny-per-ounce tax, which would raise an estimated $1 million to $3 million annually. The taxes target primarily sodas, iced tea, and energy drinks and include exceptions for milk, medicine, and alcohol.
Yerem Yeghiazarians, M.D., the San Francisco American Heart Association Board President, said the issue is an important one in the ongoing fight against obesity.
“San Francisco remains a leader in the public health arena,” Yeghiazarians said. “We want to help grow a heart-healthier generation and we’re proud to lead the country in our efforts to reduce sugary drinks consumption.”
The American Beverage Association, the lobbying group for the soda industry, has argued the tax is an unnecessary government intrusion, a regressive tax that hurts business. “If we want to get serious about obesity, it starts with education – not laws and regulation,” the group said in a blog post. The ABA has started a group called YourCartYourChoice.com to “keep politicians out of your grocery cart.”
The pressure in Berkeley, with its 80,000 voters, has been intense, with door-to-door canvassing, mailers, and radio and television advertising. The ABA has spent $2.3 million. Proponents for the ballot’s Measure D have raised $325,943 in cash – including $23,000 from the American Heart Association – and $411,597 in in-kind contributions. In all, the beverage industry has spent about $10 million on the fight in California.”
Until recently, much of the measure’s support came from local organizations, donating in small amounts and devoting volunteer time.
In the last few weeks, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who fought unsuccessfully to establish a cap on the size of soda portions sold in that city, donated $170,000 to the Berkeley campaign. He also donated $362,071 in television ad production and placement for a baseball-themed TV ad in the Bay Area during the weekend World Series games. It says, “The number of obese and overweight Bay Area children could fill our baseball stadium three times… But on Nov. 4, we get a chance to change the game.”
The latest infusion of money helped hire more neighborhood canvassers and produce more fliers, said Sara Soka, manager for the Berkeley vs. Big Soda campaign. “It is the David versus Goliath story. Even with the money coming in recently, the soda industry is still far outspending us.”
But she is optimistic the city will start a movement, she said. “Berkeley is looked up to as a trendsetter in public health issues. It was one of the first cities to set aside smoke-free areas in restaurants in the 70s … People do look at Berkeley, and it will spread. We happen to be fertile ground. The community has a high degree of readiness for this soda tax.”