The Ballot Initiative That Could Spell the End of Big Soda

Big Soda is getting nervous. The city of Berkeley, Calif. has a proposed measure charging a big tax on soda distributors. Big Soda has poured $800,000 so far into defeating the measure, which has been receiving wide support from community members and elected officials.


Berkeley’s Measure D would include a penny-per-fluid ounce tax on soda distributors. It would also tax distributors of other sugary drinks, including sports drinks, energy drinks and fruit drinks with added sugar. Lastly, premade sugary drink syrups would also be taxed based on the volume of drinks they produce.

The measure will draw attention to Big Soda’s role in the rise of diabetes, which has steadily increased in California and the rest of the nation. The California Department of Public Health reports that, “The number of new diabetes cases diagnosed each year in California has increased from 131,000 in 1995 to 209,000 in 2010.” Diabetes is also the seventh leading cause of death in California. In the U.S., childhood diabetes could become the norm with some researchers estimating that, “Forty percent of Americans born from 2000 to 2011 will develop diabetes.”

The American Beverage Association recently donated $500,000 of campaign money to vote against the measure, bringing their total to $800,000. If passed, the measure could potentially bring in up to $2 million to Berkeley’s General Fund. A panel of experts on adult and childhood nutrition would be appointed to vote on how best to use the money from the tax.

Sara Soka, campaign manager for Berkeley vs. Big Soda, said the hefty donations from the soda distributors is “not something that would put a crimp" in these companies. While Big Soda has $800,000 in campaign donations, the Yes on D campaign has received one-tenth that, for a total of about $81,000, said Soka, who expects the ABA to contribute another $4 million to defeat the measure.

The idea behind the campaign is to cause a snowball effect for other communities across the nation. The implications for diabetes in children has become a national health crisis, Soka told AlterNet. Moreover, the daily marketing of sugary drinks to children and adolescents makes the “personal responsibility” argument from soda companies much harder to swallow.

San Francisco is also voting this November on a similar Proposition E that would impose a $0.02 per ounce tax on sugary beverages. Measure D, which is not a consumer tax or sales tax, would need to pass with a super majority. Two years ago the American Beverage Association flooded campaign coffers with money to defeat Measure N in Richmond and Measure H in El Monte. The measures included a penny-per-ounce tax, and would have been the first such tax in the nation. Altogether, the ABA (and its supporters) spent $4.1 million against the measure, winning by a staggering majority of the vote — 67 percent in Richmond and 77 percent in El Monte.

Berkeley's measure would not only be a message to Big Soda, supporters say, it could also have a huge impact on health if it is implemented nationwide. A group of researchers from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center and Columbia University believe a tax could “prevent nearly 100,000 cases of heart disease, 8,000 strokes, and 26,000 deaths over the next decade.” Some say the consumption of sugary drinks in San Francisco could drop 31 percent.

“I think the writing is on the wall,” said Soka. “It’s like the tobacco smoke-free movement. People really understand how it’s really a health danger and they’re getting fed up about it.”

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