Berkeley makes history as 1st city to pass ‘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.