Berkeley vs. Big Soda

Can Berkeley take the fizz out of Big Soda?

By Rachel Trachten • Illustration by Nikki Goddard


This November, Berkeley voters can stand tall against Big Soda. The City Council has unanimously approved a ballot measure that would impose a one-cent-per-ounce tax on the distributors of sodas and other sugary, low-nutrition beverages like energy drinks, sweetened iced teas, and the syrups for fountain drinks. It’s an excise tax (not a sales tax), and distributors would have the choice of passing the cost on to consumers.

“We want consumers to be aware of how much sugar is in their drinks,” says Sara Soka, who is heading up the Berkeley vs. Big Soda campaign. The group behind the tax is the Berkeley Healthy Child Coalition (BHCC), an alliance of parents, educators, medical and public health professionals, and community organizations. The links between sugar, obesity, and type 2 diabetes are compelling: Soka says that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) predicts that one in three kids will get diabetes in their lifetime, and that the statistic is closer to one in two for African American and Latino children. “The soda industry markets directly to children,” she says, “and to African Americans and Latinos more than to their white counterparts.” A 20-ounce Coke, Soka adds, contains the equivalent of more than 20 sugar packets.

The measure, which requires a bare majority to pass, is polling well in Berkeley. If it gets the go-ahead, revenue would go into the city’s general fund. The city would then convene a panel of public health, food access, and nutrition experts to advise on funding programs to combat sugary drink consumption and its health consequences. The tax is endorsed by the NAACP, Latinos Unidos, the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, the Ecology Center, LifeLong Medical Care, Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, and many others. San Francisco is proposing a two-cents-per-ounce tax on beverage distributors, with proceeds going to city and school nutrition, health, and physical education programs.

Reducing soda consumption has been a tall order, with soda tax measures voted down in Richmond and El Monte (a suburb of Los Angeles) in 2012 thanks to intense advertising by the American Beverage Association. In June of this year, New York City’s ban on sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces was reversed by the state’s Court of Appeals. But chances look more promising for the latest measures, and Berkeley and San Francisco could become the first two cities in the U.S. to make a dent in Big Soda. “The passage of a soda tax in Berkeley and San Francisco,” says Soka, “can be as historic a moment in public health as the first smoke-free air laws.” •