Berkeley City Council sweet on sugary-drink tax

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In a unanimous decision, Berkeley City Council moved to place an ordinance on the November ballot that would tax sugary drinks.

The proposal would impose a 1-cent-per-ounce tax on high-calorie sugary drinks such as soda and energy drinks. The decision is in line with San Francisco’s proposal to put a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks on its ballot.

The Berkeley tax would exempt sweeteners, such as sugar or honey. It would also exempt drinks and sweeteners distributed to very small retailers and specific beverages such as formula, alcohol and ones taken for medicinal purposes.

More than a dozen public commenters spoke in favor of the tax, including parents, physicians and students.

Physician Lynn Silver, a Berkeley High School mom and senior adviser at the Public Health Institute in Oakland called the proposal one of the “best buys” for chronic disease prevention.

“It can help reduce consumption of the largest single contributor of empty calories: soda,” she said at the meeting. “It puts the burden on the right people: the ones who are making extraordinary profits pushing this stuff on our families.”

Many spoke of the tax proposal as an educational platform.

If the ballot measure passes, it would also establish a sugar-sweetened beverage product panel consisting of medical professionals who would advise the city on how to fund programs to reduce consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks.

“It’s not just about taxing big soda,” said Joy Moore, co-founder of Farm Fresh Choice, a food justice program, at the meeting. “We want to educate people on what’s in the soda, and we want to educate big soda. They need to know what they’re doing to us.”

But several business owners spoke out against the proposed tax at the meeting.

Ted Mundorff, CEO and president of Landmark Theaters, said the tax would do nothing except hurt business.

“If we could solve obesity and diabetes with a 1-cent tax, I would say bring it on, let’s do 2 cents,” he said at the meeting.

Jennifer Skidmore, who was representing her family business, cited a statistic that concluded sweetened beverages are on the decline without taxation, and she said because of this, companies such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi are purchasing healthier beverages to sell.

“It appears that the consumer has already voted by not purchasing the sweetened beverages,” Skidmore said at the meeting. “You’re making soda a scapegoat for a much larger issue.”

The tax has already been publicly opposed by Californians for Food & Beverage Choice, an organization spearheaded by the American Beverage Association.

All of the council members favored the proposed tax, and many described its passage as a battle that would have to be hard fought in the face of opposition from businesses.

“They are going to be sending people door to door with distortions and misinformation, and it’s going to be tough,” said Mayor Tom Bates at the meeting. “This is the beginning. This is not the end.”

Nico Correia is the lead city reporter. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @nicolocorreia.