Voters to decide historic ‘soda tax’ at Tuesday’s polls

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On Tuesday, Berkeley citizens will decide whether the city will be the first in the nation to impose a 1-cent-per-ounce tax on distributors of sugar-sweetened beverages with the passage of Measure D.

In March, the city circulated a survey that found 66 percent of Berkeley residents would support such a tax, with 28 percent opposed. Five months later, Berkeley City Council unanimously moved to place an ordinance called Measure D, which would tax sugary drinks, on the November ballot.

All funds raised by the tax would go to the city’s general fund for the city to redistribute to different programs. If passed, the ordinance would also set up a panel of experts to advise City Council on how to support programs in reducing sugary-drink consumption.

Since its proposal, the measure has been a source of controversy due to its ballot language, and it has drawn national attention due to the large number of contributions each side has received.

As election day approaches, opponents of Measure D have raised more than $1 million in backing the No on D campaign. The PAC of the American Beverage Association has funneled significant amounts of money into dissuading votes for the tax. In comparison, the Yes on D campaign has attracted contributions with big names such as former New York city mayor Michael Bloomberg.

In August, two Berkeley residents who opposed the tax filed a petition against the city alleging that some of the ballot’s language was biased. A judge later changed some of the contested language.

Proponents say passing the tax would be an important step in the fight against obesity. According to advocates of the Yes on D campaign, imposing such a tax would help mitigate widespread health problems related to sugary-drink consumption. While opponents point out that such a tax could raise prices, supporters emphasize that higher prices would discourage the purchase of these drinks.

Some have criticized the tax’s structure, describing it as too vague in how money is distributed, and argue that the tax revenue will not be directed toward health programs.

“Everyone can agree that we should all live healthier lifestyles and have improvements in diet, but taxing common grocery items is not the way to do that,” said Roger Salazar, spokesperson for the No on D campaign. “It will have an economic impact on consumers and businesses already struggling to make ends meet.”

When a similar measure was voted down in Richmond a few years ago, there were concerns voiced that such a tax would target low-income households, particularly in black and Hispanic communities.

But supporters of the proposed tax argue that the panel of health and education experts the ordinance would create would “help devise strategies to combat the effects of sugary drinks on young people,” according to the official argument defending the Yes on D campaign submitted to the city.

Others disagree, however, asserting that the tax is an important step in dissuading younger people from drinking unhealthy beverages.

“A win in Berkeley will be a tipping point for other communities in the nation to have courage and to know that they can take up Big Soda,” said Sara Soka, a campaign manager for Yes on D. “I also think that it can happen in any community where people … are able to come together and unite for their children’s health.”

Polls are open Tuesday from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

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