A political action committee for the American Beverage Association, a trade organization that represents U.S. beverage companies, poured half a million dollars last week into the fight against a proposed soda tax in the city of Berkeley.
The beverage association’s total campaign contributions represent the largest in this year’s municipal election. Measure D, known colloquially as a “soda tax,” would impose a 1-cent-per-ounce tax on distributors of sugar-sweetened beverages in Berkeley.
Members of Berkeley City Council and Berkeley Unified School District both unanimously endorsed the measure. In an open letter to Berkeley voters, the Yes on D campaign stated that its opponent was “really just the American Beverage Association,” which is describing itself as a “coalition of citizens, businesses, and community organizations.”
“They are trying to buy the minds of our community,” said Vicki Alexander, a former Berkeley city health director and supporter of the measure, during a press conference. “They are trying to buy the heart of our community.”
Financial support and funding for the Yes on D campaign comes from “grassroots supporters,” such as Berkeley’s Ecology Center and various members of City Council, according to Councilmember Jesse Arreguin.
The beverage association’s contribution will allow the campaign to communicate with voters through electronic media and door-to-door canvassing, according to Roger Salazar, spokesperson for No on Measure D.
Opponents of the tax say the measure contains unclear wording and loopholes, including exemptions for small retailers and beverages such as milk and alcohol. Additionally, those who oppose the tax say it would impose a financial burden on beverage consumers.
“(The tax) will raise the cost of living for everybody, just so they can have their vanity project,” Salazar said.
Two Berkeley residents who oppose the tax sued the city over allegedly biased ballot language in August. A judge later issued a ruling to reword several phrases in the measure’s language.
One of the plaintiffs, Leon Cain, works as an associate for a firm whose CEO leads “coalition building efforts” in California for the American Beverage Association.
Tax supporters cite a national hike in cases of childhood obesity and diabetes as the main reason for the measure. Revenue from the tax would go into the city’s general fund and could be used toward supporting childhood nutrition programs and healthy food initiatives.
“The diabetes epidemic is enormously expensive to the health care system,” said Raymond Barglow, a Berkeley resident. “The industry that is responsible for all that sugar should help defray the costs of health care.”
Those involved in the Yes on D campaign say the impact of the tax would be a reduction in consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks and an overall increase in awareness of the link between diabetes and sugary drinks.
But No on D supporters warn that the tax would be born by consumers and hurt business.
If voters approve the measure, Berkeley would be one of the first cities in the nation to adopt such a tax.
“This is Berkeley at its best,” said Josh Daniels, Yes on D campaign co-chair and Berkeley school board president. “We would be offering an approach that other cities could follow.”