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Soda Tax Succeeds In Berkeley, Fizzles In San Francisco

Voters in Berkeley, Calif., have passed the nation’s first soda tax with a resounding 75 percent of the vote. The measure aims to reduce the effects of sugar consumption on health, especially increased rates of obesity and diabetes.

Across the bay in San Francisco, however, a similar proposal failed to get the two-thirds supermajority it needed.

More than 30 cities and states across the country have attempted but failed to enact such a tax, at least in part because of well-funded opposition from the soda industry.

Soda bottles are displayed in a food truck's cooler on July 2014 in San Francisco. A ballot measure to tax soda failed in San Francisco. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Soda bottles are displayed in a food truck’s cooler on July 2014 in San Francisco. A ballot measure to tax soda failed in San Francisco, but a similar one passed in Berkeley, Calif. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Berkeley’s Measure D needed only a simple majority to pass. It will levy a penny-per-ounce tax on most sugar-sweetened beverages and is estimated to raise more than $1 million per year. Proceeds will go to the general fund; Measure D calls for the creation of a health panel to advise Berkeley’s City Council on appropriate health programs to receive funding.

Campaign Co-Chair Josh Daniels called Berkeley’s win a tipping point. “I think you will now see many, many other cities and communities around the country looking at this as a genuine public policy to address the diabetes and obesity crisis that we face,” he said.

While the San Francisco proposition did not pass, supporters there declared a victory of their own: More than half the voters approved the tax despite millions spent by the American Beverage Association to defeat it.

“So the fact that we were able to overcome $10 million,” said Proposition E coauthor Scott Wiener, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, “and it looks like a majority of San Franciscans – despite that $10 million – will vote ‘yes,’ is pretty extraordinary.”

The opposition campaigns, funded primarily by the beverage association, argued that the measures were riddled with loopholes and wouldn’t accomplish their health goals. Roger Salazar, a spokesman for the campaigns, pointed to the 30 failed measures from around the country and called Berkeley “an anomaly.” He said that to expect to pass such a tax elsewhere in California was “foolhardy.”

Advocates are convinced he’s wrong. Harold Goldstein, executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, called the measure’s passage “remarkable.”

“What we learned here in Berkeley,” he said, “is that when voters learn the truth about sugary beverages, when they learn that they are one of the central causes of the growing diabetes epidemic, they want to tax it, they want to regulate these products.”

Sodas are the primary source of added sugar in the American diet and that added sugar is linked to increasing rates of diabetes.

Berkeley has a history of being first to a new cause that’s later embraced more broadly, said Lori Dorfman, executive director for the Berkeley Media Studies Group. “In the mid-70s, Berkeley made the first ‘curb cut,’ and now people in wheelchairs all over the country are not trapped in their homes anymore.” She noted that Berkeley was also the first city to pass a clean indoor air ordinance.

Mexico enacted a national soda tax on January 1, and by summer, consumption had dropped 10 percent.

Kelly Brownell, dean of Duke University’s school of public policy first proposed a soda tax in the early 1990s. He called the votes in both Berkeley and San Francisco “historic” and, like other advocates, predicted other cities will soon follow suit and that soda companies are bracing for that.

“My guess is that inside their boardrooms, they know very well these taxes are the beginning of the future,” he said. “This is a wave starting to crest.”

Brownell said that half the costs of diabetes and obesity are born by taxpayers, through government health insurance programs Medicare and Medicaid. Those public costs “justify the government getting involved, just like tobacco taxes,” he said.

This story is part of a reporting partnership that includes KQED, NPR and Kaiser Health News.

Related Topics

California Health Industry States