Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP

Progressives find fizz in ballot measures

Berkeley soda tax shows way to fight obesity epidemic without alienating voters

November 6, 2014 2:00AM ET

Among gleeful Republicans and tedious pundits alike, a favorite guessing game before Wednesday afternoon’s White House press conference centered on how President Barack Obama would label the Democrats’ miserable results in the midterm election. Was it a “wave” or, worse yet, a “tsunami”? Should the president call it a “thumping” or “shellacking”? But regardless of the president’s word choice, he’ll already be captive to a narrative written well in advance: Americans rebuked Democrats — and, by extension, liberalism — on Tuesday; the president’s agenda has flatlined; and ascendant Republicans in the state capitals and Washington D.C. herald a sharp right turn for American politics.

As with most media narratives, this contains a grain of truth and a loaf of conjecture. Tuesday was certainly brutal for Democrats. The party not only lost control of the U.S. Senate, where it was defending a number of closely-held seats in red states, but it also suffered disastrous gubernatorial losses in reliably blue states such as Illinois, Massachusetts, Maine and Maryland. Still, those headlines don’t tell the whole story. For instance, how do we reconcile blue-state gubernatorial defeats with voters’ approval of minimum wage increases in Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota? In the cold light of Wednesday morning, these victories may seem small consolation. But they suggest that there may be life yet in the progressive agenda. In fact, one of the biggest reasons for optimism came in one of Tuesday’s smallest elections: a pioneering ballot initiative in the city of Berkeley, California.

The issue in question, Measure D, was straightforward enough: Should Berkeley impose a 1-cent-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages such as sodas and energy drinks? Although skeptics might roll their eyes at this apparent college-town pipe dream, the soda industry took it deathly seriously. For the last several weeks, surfaces across the city were plastered with ominous ads warning voters to reject Measure D, claiming that “It’s not what it seems.” All in all, the industry spent about $2.5 million to defeat the measure – and lost resoundingly, making Berkeley the first city in America to approve a soda tax. It was a rare defeat for big-money donors who, in many other races, flexed their financial muscle to devastating effect. (In San Francisco, a similar measure requiring two-thirds majority for passage fell short, garnering just 54 percent approval in the face of an opposition campaign that spent more than $9 million donated mostly by the beverage industry.)

Berkeley’s measure may appear small, especially in comparison to the litany of defeats suffered by progressive candidates nationwide on Tuesday. But it’s the start of a smarter progressive campaign to combat obesity — one free of the paternalism that marred former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ban on large soda containers in New York City and the attendant backlash that effort generated. 

The nation’s first soda tax passed overwhelmingly with three-quarters of the vote. In a night full of progressive defeats, this is a real glimmer of hope.

Combating the serious public health problem posed by sugary drinks is exactly the kind of well-intentioned, good idea that tends to trip the left. Scholars have demonstrated the seriousness of the problem with volumes of research. There’s a clear rationale for public response. The effort would counteract the baleful influence of a major industry. And yet doing something about it is almost guaranteed to annoy the average voter.

Sugary drinks are a major cause of obesity, and obesity is both a public health epidemic and a major economic and budget problem. Some research suggests that more than one-fifth of all medical spending in the U.S. is obesity-related, to say nothing of lost productivity, increased rates of disability and the simple decline in quality of life that can accompany weight problems. On one estimate, the total cost to the U.S. economy associated with obesity may exceed $215 billion annually. On its face, the public health justification for discouraging sugary-drink consumption is obvious. But liberals would be wise to tread cautiously: Nothing plays into the stereotype of big-government overreach quite like restricting Americans’ choice to gulp down a giant Coca-Cola.

That’s what made Bloomberg’s approach so controversial — and it’s precisely the element that Berkeley’s initiative mercifully lacks. Instead of trying to dictate consumer choice by banning drinks over a certain size, the Berkeley initiative instead tries to make sure that the price of unhealthy drinks reflects their true cost — a smarter, fairer approach to taxation that could influence behavior and achieve public health victories without public backlash. To be fair, some observers have criticized the Berkeley measure, because the revenue generated from the tax will go into a general fund rather than toward anti-obesity programs. However, levying a special tax to direct the money in that way would have required Berkeley to adopt a supermajority requirement, as San Francisco did. Berkeley’s measure easily passed, while San Francisco’s fell short. Now an expert panel will make recommendations on how Berkeley should spend the money.

At least, that’s the idea behind the nation’s first soda tax, which passed overwhelmingly with three-quarters of the vote. In a night full of progressive defeats, this is a real glimmer of hope. It signals that progressives have learned from earlier setbacks, and that they can mobilize against well-funded corporate opposition. Opponents and skeptics should pay close attention to the result and not follow the example of one defeated representative of the beverage industry, who dismissively told the AP: “Berkeley is very eclectic. It doesn’t look like Anytown USA.” True enough. Ideas like these sometimes catch on in Anytown USA more quickly than people expect. Consider just one measure of that fact, especially salient in the wake of last night’s drubbing: There are more states with legalized same-sex marriage than there are with Democratic governors.

Nathan Pippenger is contributing Web editor at Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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