Move over Michael Bloomberg…. On Tuesday July 1, the Berkeley City Council voted unanimously and enthusiastically to place a soda tax measure on the November 2014 ballot. If voters approve the measure in November, Berkeley would be the first US city to tax sugar-sweetened drinks. Council members are bracing for a fight. “We expect the soda lobbyists to spend upwards of $5 million against us in Berkeley and to spread misinformation,” said Council member Laurie Capitelli, “but elected officials have the right and the responsibility to protect public health.”

berkeley soda tax

Berkeley soda tax latest in a long line of community efforts

Berkeley’s proposed soda tax is the latest in a long line of community efforts to improve the health of Berkeley’s children and erase health disparities. From the Edible Schoolyard to the School Lunch Initiative to Farm Fresh Choice, Berkeley has been a hotbed of innovative programs that have gained national attention. The group behind the soda tax – the Berkeley Healthy Child Coalition (BHCC) – is an alliance of parents, educators, residents, public health professionals, dentists, and community organizations. “We are here to take a stand to protect the health of our children,” says Dr. Vicki Alexander, BHCC co-chair, former director of the Black Infant Health Program for the City of Berkeley, and a 2014 recipient of the Berkeley’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Lifetime Achievement Award.

Berkeley’s soda tax, as well as San Francisco’s soda tax proposal, is part of a larger public health movement to stem excessive sugar consumption and the diseases it causes. The beverage industry, i.e. “Big Soda,” has spent millions of dollars on lobbying, advertising, and political contributions to kill soda tax and soda labeling initiatives in California, the US, and Mexico. “This is Berkeley versus Big Soda,” says Marian Mabel, PTA Co-President at Malcolm X Elementary and a member of the BHCC. “We know that they are going to come out swinging. But our kids’ health is more important than corporate profits.”

BHCC on reason for the soda tax

BHCC notes that in 2006 alone, soda companies spent nearly $600 million advertising to children under 18. “Sugary drinks have grown ever more exaggerated in size and more aggressively marketed to our kids by Big Soda, causing more harm to their health. The Berkeley Soda Tax will reduce consumption, protect health, and raise money to address critical community needs,” says Dr. Lynn Silver, pediatrician and Berkeley Unified parent, as well as a Senior Advisor for Chronic Disease and Obesity at the Public Health Institute.

A 2011 report from Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity found beverage companies increased television ads in 2010 and aggressively targeted black and Latino kids with ads to promote their most sugar-laden drinks. Black children and teens saw 80 to 90 percent more ads compared with white youth. “These are the same communities that are suffering from disproportionate rates of diabetes, obesity, and heart disease,” says Xavier Morales, Berkeley parent and Executive Director of the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California. “This is both a health and social justice issue.”

Big soda will target the soda tax

“Big Soda will claim that we are attacking a product that is beloved by low-income folks,” says Council member Capitelli, “but those are the people who are coming to us and asking us to put this on the ballot.” Prior to Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, supporters rallied on the steps to the Council Chamber, waving signs and offering testimony about personal and family health challenges. “Fifteen years ago, only 3% of new cases of child and adolescent diabetes were Type II (once known as adult-onset),” said Dr. Robin Winokur of Kiwi Pediatrics at the rally. “Today, 45% of new cases are Type II.”

Fifty years ago, the Surgeon General’s office released its landmark report linking cigarette smoking to cancer and disease. In the years that followed, smoking was transformed from an issue of individual consumer choice, to one of epidemiology, public health, and risk. Sugary drinks are following a similar trajectory: the last decade has seen an avalanche of research and medical studies linking “liquid sugar” to poor health outcomes and substantial public health costs.