Robert Galbraith / Reuters

Berkeley soda tax bubbles ahead, set to become nation’s first

A similar San Francisco measure fizzles

Berkeley, long known for embracing radical social ideas that filter into the mainstream, will be the first city in the United States to pass a tax on sugary drinks, according to early returns.

The Alameda County registrar’s office reported 74 percent of voters favored Measure D, which calls for a 1 cent per ounce tax on sugary drinks such as sodas, with 42 percent of precincts reporting.

“We built an incredible coalition here in Berkeley,” Vicki Alexander told Berkeleyside. “We are building a movement.”

The movement appears to have failed to cross San Francisco Bay, with fewer than two-thirds of San Francisco voters pulling for Proposition E, a 2 cent per ounce tax on sugary drinks.

Because the San Francisco proposition detailed how the tax money would be spent — on health, nutrition, fitness and education programs — it required a two-thirds majority of votes to pass.

The two ballot measures drew national attention in part because of beverage industry spending — upward of $11 million — to oppose them. The measures returned to a question examined and then rejected by voters elsewhere: Should governments nanny up to regulate sugary drink choices?

No on D campaign spokesman Roger Salazar said that while the tax appeared to be winning in Berkeley, it would be wrong to make too much of it.

“It’s still early,” he told The San Jose Mercury shortly before 9:30 p.m. “But if the numbers continue the way they are, then the outcome of Measure D is unfortunate but not surprising, given some of the dubious measures that have come out of Berkeley.”

“The soda tax activists have been venue shopping for more than five years, and over that time, more than 30 cities and states have rejected similar taxes,” he said. “Berkeley is low-hanging fruit. It doesn't look like mainstream America."

Berkeley lawmakers passed domestic partner legislation that became a national blueprint in 1984 and voted the city a nuclear-free zone in 1986, some 20 years after the eruption of the free speech movement on the University of California at Berkley campus.

“Yes, it’s Berkeley. Yes, it’s a liberal community with a big university, but there are lots of communities like that in America," Marion Nestle, a professor at New York University who is working on a book about food advocacy and the soda industry, told Politico. "Others will certainly do the same thing. If it could win in Berkeley, it could win in a lot of places. Maybe it will pass in Austin. Maybe it will pass in Ithaca … Other places are going to try this.”

The “yes” campaign got a late boost with a hefty contribution from billionaire former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who also bought television ads that ran during the World Series that highlighted the number of obese children in the Bay Area.

Bloomberg drew national attention when he called for a ban on sugary sodas and other drinks in sizes larger than 16 ounces, but courts ruled in 2013 that imposing the ban through New York City's Board of Health was beyond the agency’s “scope of regulatory authority.”

The California cities of Richmond and El Monte failed at their attempts to implement 1 cent per ounce taxes on sugary drinks in 2012.

During the campaigns on Measure D and Proposition E, proponents of the measures said the taxes would discourage the purchase of sugary beverages, which would reduce rates of diabetes and other health problems. A study from a team of scientists at UCSF, Columbia University and San Francisco General Hospital, for example, found that a nationwide 1 cent per ounce tax on sweetened beverages could prevent an estimated 240,000 cases of diabetes each year as well as 100,000 cases of heart disease, 8,000 strokes and 26,000 deaths over the next decade.

Opponents said the taxes would unfairly target poor and minority voters who disproportionately consume sugary beverages.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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