Berkeley makes history as 1st city to pass ‘soda tax’

Vicki Alexander, co-chair of Yes on D, reacts to the first wave of precinct results that reported early support for the 'soda tax.'
Ryan Serpa /Staff
Vicki Alexander, co-chair of Yes on D, reacts to the first wave of precinct results that reported early support for the 'soda tax.'

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Update 11/5/2014: This article has been updated to reflect a statement released Wednesday morning from the No on D campaign.

Berkeley made history Tuesday as the first city in the nation to pass a tax on the distribution of sugar-sweetened beverages.

On Tuesday night, impassioned chants and cheers of “Berkeley, Yes — Soda, No” resonated through the headquarters of Berkeley’s Yes on D campaign as votes trickled in. As of press time with all precincts reporting, about 75 percent of Berkeley citizens were tabulated in support of the tax of 1 cent per ounce on the distributors of sugary drinks, with about 25 percent opposed.

“We knew we could do this from the beginning — every door we knocked on, every sign we put out, every block, every neighborhood — and we watched it like a flower growing bigger and bigger,” said Councilmember Lindo Maio, who spoke at the event. “It’s all because of us, our wonderful city and our kids — it’s all about our kids.”

Members of Yes on D said the tax will reduce consumption of sugary drinks among children, which they argue is largely responsible for rising obesity rates and related diseases such as diabetes. Opponents of the tax, however, felt that there were other policy alternatives to addressing these health issues and funding programs.

No on Measure D spokesperson Roger Salazar released a statement Wednesday morning saying the outcome was “unfortunate but not surprising.”

“Soda tax activists have been venue shopping for more than five years,” Salazar said in the statement. “Berkeley was low-hanging fruit, and doesn’t look like mainstream America. If politicians want to stake their reputations on what Berkeley did, they do so at their own risk.”

Richmond citizens voted down a sugary-drink tax measure in 2012, and San Francisco voters failed to pass a similar measure Tuesday night. Their measure — which, unlike Berkeley’s measure, needed a two-thirds majority vote — stipulated that any funds raised by the tax are earmarked for health education programs.

In Berkeley, a simple majority was needed to pass the tax, whose revenue will enter into the general fund and be distributed at the city’s discretion. In addition, the ordinance establishes a panel of experts that will advise City Council on how to distribute the tax revenue and support programs in reducing sugary-drink consumptions.

Opponents of Measure D raised more than $1.4 million for the No on D campaign in Berkeley, with significant contributions from the political arm of the American Beverage Association, a beverage trade organization whose members include Coca-Cola and PepsiCo.

Supporters were financially outnumbered by the soda industry, though the Yes on D campaign attracted hefty contributions from former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, who donated more than $350,000.

“It was never about the money — we had the community connections, the coalition, the field campaign,” said Martin Bourque, executive director of the city’s Ecology Center. “What our victory shows is a community that’s organized and unified can stand up for its kids’ health despite outrageous money spent against its interests.”

In August, the battle over the “soda tax” entered the court system when two Berkeley residents opposing the measure filed a petition against the city over portions of the ballot’s language, some of which the judge ruled to change.

Mayor Tom Bates, who supported the tax throughout the campaign, explained that the next step is for City Council to work with the Berkeley community in deciding exactly how to best spend the revenue on health programs.

“We saw the soda industry do everything they could at the polls, and we expect them to do the same by suing,” Bates said. “We have to write a defensible ordinance, an ordinance that will hold up in court.”

Vicki Alexander, who helped organize the campaign and spoke at the event, emphasized that the next challenge is educating more people and recruiting more numbers into the campaign, because “big soda ain’t leaving us alone.”

“We wanted to turn the tide on big soda, and the tide has turned,” Bourque said. “If they do sue, if they fight in other cities, the tide has turned, and they know it.”

Bo Kovitz covers city news. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @beau_etc.

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  • Neighbor

    it would be better to remove the subsidies (eg corn) that make the drinks cheap to produce and sell in the first place. but we can’t challenge the powerful food & ag lobby so we go after consumers. Not very progressive, Berkeley.

    • PolishKnightUSA

      It’s more complicated than that. The ethanol subsidies have resulted in taking corn products out of the consumer market and driving food prices up (while simultaneously not lowering prices on gasoline since ethanol production is notorious inefficient.) A lose-lose for the environment, consumers, attempts to reduce world hunger, etc.

  • Prosper

    It’s times like these where I stop regretting my choice of coming to Berkeley. Whether you agree or not with the ‘soda tax’, it’s still amazing to be part of a community that’s daring enough to experiment with change. Better to see what kinds of effects (good or bad) this tax will have than not trying and never knowing at all.

  • Ziggi1983

    If they want people to make healthier choice as to what to consume then they should be working on making healthier foods affordable instead of raising taxes on what is not healthy and leaving the healthy food at the ridiculous costs they are at now.

  • Bob Bell

    Can we please put that “junk food is cheaper than real food” canard to rest? For a so called “reality based” community, liberals seem to spend a lot of time in fantasy land. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/25/opinion/sunday/is-junk-food-really-cheaper.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

  • Dan Spitzer

    lita, your commentary has merit. But there are far more productive ways to have our populace ingest healthier food. Rather than place so much time and emphasis upon an initiative which will likely have little impact upon those who swallow soft drinks, thereby dictating to them under penalty of taxation their personal food choices, wouldn’t it be better to work to influence the California legislature to minimize corn syrup and trans fat from food sold in the state?
    Sometimes it’s far better to be politically smart than just scream, rant and place on the ballot that which taxes people for the personal choices they make. It’s far too easy to move from that kind of activism to the suppression of other individual rights. And that is truly reason for concern…

    • Ian Hoffman

      I’ve got admit I’m suspicious of people like you who say it’s “better to work to influence the California legislature,” and stuff like that, effectively sweeping any change we have brought about as infantile because it did not go through some sort of proper pathway, or pathway proper enough, or because you think it’s inefficient. Sure, there could be better ways to make change; I agree that statewide change that came through the legislature would be incredible, and I’d be overjoyed. But can’t we take this as a little victory, a good thing that won’t change the world? C’mon.

      • Dan Spitzer

        I can understand where your coming from, Ian. But experience has taught me that little incremental changes that have marginal impact such as the soda tax stem from a great deal of time and effort better utilized by activists in ways which have genuine impact…

  • Dan Spitzer

    So gvk and his pals on the far left as well as their partners of SJP and MSA believe they have determined, a “litmus test” for freedom of speech. Well gvk, in a society whose First Amendment rights don’t force us to capitulate to a demagogic herd such as yours, your litmus test simply may not resonate with that of others. But you would never understand that because you, SJP and MSA believe you all have a monopoly on what is “right.”
    Fortunately, Chancellor Dirks has saved UC Berkeley from becoming ever more the laughingstock that its loony left and Islamists have made it over the years. By refusing to rescind the invitation to Maher, the Chancellor has kept UCB’s legacy of the Free Speech Movement from succumbing to the scorn attendant to the rankest of hypocrisy.
    The ever PC citizenry of the City of Berkeley are yet another matter. They succeeded in their wish to determine what our populace might consume without suffering a penalty of taxation (which incidentally will primarily affect the poor). Even quintessentially PC San Francisco refused to buy in this sanctimonious nonsense, leaving Berkeley once again alone as the capital of craziness in the mind’s eye of most Americans…

  • Dan Spitzer

    “Some people are challenging.” You mean the SJP, MSA, and the loony far left horde who have decided that they should be the arbiters of who should speak at Cal’s commencement and who should not.
    Fortunately, Chancellor Dirks has kept Berkeley from becoming a laughing stock by not rescinding the invitation to Maher. To have abrogated Maher’s invitation would have invited the scorn of true First Amendment believers to say nothing of rendering the legacy of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement fall under the rubric of hypocrisy.
    As for the food police, they are also trying to dictate to the citizens of Berkeley as to just what they should ingest w/o paying a penalty. This the typical sanctimonious rubbish we regularly see stemming from the Berkeley left which has made our fair city a continuing national laughingstock. Even PC San Francisco voting vs the soda tax, but not our holier than thou citizenry…

    • Dan Spitzer

      Apologies for the near repeat as the editing function didn’t work. But what I wrote in the two posts above are both applicable to the UCB and City of Berkeley realities…

  • Joe Blow

    All the poor have left is food.

    And they won’t stop till they take that away from us.

  • lspanker

    That picture is worth a thousand words at describing the type of people who pushed this tax in the first place.

    • Dan Spitzer

      Yes indeed. And this vote will have no influence anywhere else as people will just say, “It’s lunatic Berkeley where the food police prevail.”
      As you said, Ispanker, this picture perfectly encapsulates the insanity of the Berkeley left which has made our city a national laughingstock. And this is also what people elsewhere are thinking about the attempt to stifle Bill Maher’s freedom of speech…

    • Sherman Boyson

      Ah yes, we should vote on the way people who support a cause look, and not on the merits of the issue.

    • Ian Hoffman

      Oh, yeah, cause everyone in Berkeley looks like that. We’re just a mecca of crazy hippies. Never mind the thousands of college students who make up a huge % of our pop. Never mind the totally normal looking people in the back of that photo. Berkeley isn’t stereotyped at all! This is like, totally stereotyping, yo.

    • BerkeleyLaw16

      And I’d assume you’d say the same if a picture of Michael Bloomberg were included in the article, too? After all, he was the biggest pusher of this tax in the first place.