Since 2014, when a one-cent-per-ounce tax on all sugar-sweetened beverages was implemented in Berkeley, the tax was shown to discourage sugary drink purchases and increase sales of other beverages such as water. UC Berkeley’s pouring rights contract with PepsiCo outlines the beverage selection provided on campus.
Ken Hecht, a member of the Berkeley Soda Commission and coordinator at the UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Nutrition Policy Institute, explained limiting soda consumption can reduce the chance of contracting diet-related diseases such as diabetes.
He added the tax promotes environmental sustainability due to the large amount of water required to produce sugary drinks and the frequent discarding of microplastics during production.
“It’s simple economics,” Hecht said. “When the price goes up, the purchases go down, and that has (been) particularly effective in the neighborhoods where you want it to work best.”
Sugar-sweetened beverage tax in Berkeley
Hecht explained that 42.5% of the revenue raised by the tax goes to the Berkeley Unified School District and 42.5% to local community groups, with the remaining 15% going to the city.
These groups, which largely support Black and Latine communities, provide nutrition education opportunities and encourage physical activity through trails and parks, according to Hecht.
“The purpose is to get the benefit of the tax into the communities that have been most impacted by sodas,” Hecht said. “We encourage the communities to figure out what it is that works best for them.”
Despite the tax’s success, Hecht noted that the measure faced “very aggressive” opposition from the soda industry when it went up for vote. In response, soda companies pushed the state government to enact a preemption statute, which prohibited future efforts toward local soda taxes.
Hecht explained that the statute did not undo existing taxes, located in Albany, Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco.
Jennifer Falbe, an alumna of UC Berkeley and associate professor of nutrition and human development at UC Davis, cited a court ruling this March that declared as unconstitutional the penalization of charter cities for managing their affairs, which includes local sugary drink taxes.
This can “open the door” for future efforts to install local taxes across California, she explained.
Further, sugar-sweetened beverage taxes can also inform how institutions such as UC Berkeley evaluate their soda consumption.
UC Berkeley’s pouring rights contract
Following the goal of decreasing sugary drink consumption, students and faculty have advocated that UC Berkeley move away from pouring rights contracts, or PRCs.
These agreements outline the goods and services to be provided to university-operated settings including Cal Dining, the Student Union, student housing and athletics concessions, according to Amber Robertson, the director of communications and brand management for University Business Partnerships & Services.
Kristine Madsen, a UC Berkeley public health professor who sits on the UC Berkeley Beverage Working Group, explained the university has been in PRCs for over two decades, first with Coca-Cola and then with PepsiCo.
Robertson said PRCs “streamline” implementing goods and services on campus and strengthen its relationship with providers. She added these contracts allow campus to save costs and “capitalize” on potential sponsorship revenue.
“Benefits of a contract can include creating a more attractive campus opportunity for potential providers that are more likely to have the resources to meet university needs in revenue, sustainability and nutrition,” Robertson said in an email.
However, Madsen noted that while these contracts are “useful” to the university, they are “inconsistent” with UC Berkeley’s values of promoting student and staff well-being.
She added PRCs fail to combat climate change, noting PepsiCo and Coca-Cola are two of the world’s top plastic polluters.
“If we just continue with business as usual, allowing Big Soda to specifically advertise to lower income communities and to use our student athletes as their brand ambassadors, we are again complicit in extending these behaviors that lead to significant health inequities,” Madsen said.
Fable also noted several problems with PRCs, including noncompliance with campus’s single-use plastic elimination policy, limiting choice in beverages and enabling “anti-competitive” contracts that exclude local businesses and potentially those with diverse ownership.
The contract also requires UC Berkeley to market PepsiCo products on campus, which includes large signage, scoreboards and media. Athletes also must drink from Gatorade merchandise, Fable added.
She said these contracts “undermine” the integrity and reputation of campus.
“Public universities have a unique responsibility to serve society and to do so with integrity,” Fable said in an email. “I do not believe that public universities should compromise their autonomy and values for sponsorship money, let alone such a small amount, from companies with a long track record of harming health and the environment.”
The UC Research Consortium on Beverages and Health wrote a letter to UC President Michael Drake in late April sharing concerns about PRCs and calling for a moratorium, according to Fable. This letter was co-signed by faculty across all campuses.
Other efforts to oppose UC Berkeley’s PRC, Fable noted, include resolutions passed by the ASUC and the undergraduate -student-led campaign Pour Out Pepsi.
“As the group most affected by PRCs, students should play a pivotal role in this decision,” Fable said in the email.
The Beverage Working Group at UC Berkeley — which consists of students, a faculty representative, athletics and sustainability representatives, the student union and dining — discussed alternatives to the contract in spring of 2022, Madsen explained.
As the group’s faculty representative Madsen said, the group suggested following the model used at the University of Michigan, in which the PRC was with athletics rather than across its entire campus.
Fable added colleges such as UCSF, University of Vermont, Humboldt State and San Francisco State University do not have PRCs and instead prioritize setting up purchasing agreements with smaller businesses.
She expressed that UC Berkeley’s administration should consult with the Academic Senate before renewing a PRC, as well as hold public town halls to evaluate opinions from the community.
“We would do a better job making this decision if we had adequate faculty and student representation proportional to their composition and key role on our campus,” Fable said in the email.