Jul 7 4:25 PM

Berkeley moves to tax sugary drinks

Berkeley has proposed a penny per ounce tax on sweetened beverages such as soda.
Frederic J. Brown / AFP / Getty Images

Berkeley, California, the university town known for its liberal activism, just moved one step closer to becoming the first city in the U.S. to tax sweetened beverages.

The Berkeley City Council voted unanimously last week to put a proposed 1 cent per ounce tax on sugary drinks to voters on the November 2014 ballot.  

The tax would be on the distributors of sweetened beverages, rather than a sales tax, and small businesses would be exempted. Certain sugary drinks would also be given a pass, including infant formula, milk products, alcohol, meal replacement drinks used for weight loss, drinks like Ensure that are used for medical conditions and “natural fruit and vegetable juice.” So would diet soda, according to the Sacramento Bee.

The taxes gathered would go toward the city’s general fund. The city’s branch of the NAACP, the Berkeley Federation of Teachers and local foodie royalty Alice Waters and Michael Pollan have pledged their support for the tax.

But opponents say consumption of sweetened beverages has been on the decline, so singling out the drinks won’t do much for public health. “We believe this is a regressive tax on grocery items like sugar-sweetened beverages and it won’t make people in Berkeley any healthier,” Roger Salazar with Californians for Food and Beverage Choice told KQED’s News Fix blog.

And others criticized the lack of education or nutrition programs behind the tax. "It's disingenuous because there's nothing in this measure that's going to education. This goes right into the general account. It's a money grab," Ted Mundorff, chief executive officer of Landmark Theatres, which has movie theaters in Berkeley, told Reuters.

Berkeley joins nearby San Francisco, which will also pose a ballot measure to voters for a 2 cent per ounce tax for sweetened beverages with more than 25 calories, exempting diet sodas and naturally sweetened drinks like fruit juices. The funds would go to the city’s school district and its public health and recreation and park departments for nutrition and athletic programs and initiatives like water bottle filling stations.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg drew national attention when he championed a ban on sugary sodas and drinks in sizes larger than 16 ounces, but courts ruled in 2013 that the means by which the ban was imposed, through the city’s Board of Health, was beyond the agency’s “scope of regulatory authority.” The New York State Court of Appeals vanquished the proposal for good last month.

The California cities of Richmond and El Monte made failed attempts to implement penny-per-ounce taxes on sugary drinks in 2012.

And in June, the California State Legislature voted down a bill that would have required warning labels on sweetened-beverages, cautioning consumers about obesity, diabetes and tooth decay.

A study from a team of scientists at UCSF, Columbia University and San Francisco General Hospital found that a nationwide penny-per-ounce tax on sweetened beverages could prevent an estimated 240,000 cases of diabetes each year, in addition to 100,000 cases of heart disease, 8,000 strokes and 26,000 deaths over the next decade. But proposed taxes on sugary drinks have faced concerted opposition from the beverage industry.

The city of Berkeley, home to the University of California campus known for birthing the Free Speech Movement in the 1960s, and which still maintains an activist bent, has already banned smoking in multiunit housing, and just recently proposed that area marijuana dispensaries give away 2 percent of their cannabis to the poor for medicinal use.


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