Soda industry spends $1.7 million to fight $0.01 per ounce tax in Berkeley

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The City of Berkeley has about 80,000 registered voters, who will be asked to decide if the city should implement a $0.01 cent per ounce tax on sugary beverages on their November ballots.

The proposal would tax sugary soda (but not calorie-free sodas containing artificial sweeteners), energy drinks, fruit juices with added sugar, and the syrups that are added to coffee beverages. Beverages with milk as the primary ingredient are exempt, as are 100 percent fruit juices. Alcoholic beverages are also exempt because they are already subject to tax.

The proposal has initiated a big response from the beverage industry, which has spent $1.7 million fighting the proposal, making the city the latest ground in the fight over soda taxes. The anti-tax efforts have included canvassers, subway ads, mass mailings, print ads, posters on bus stops and TV commercials.

“It can feel like the whole city is under invasion by a propaganda machine,” writes Josh Harkinson for Mother Jones. Early polls suggest that that two thirds of Berkeley’s predominantly liberal population are in favor of the measure. “The soda fight is, if nothing else, a case study in whether truckloads of cash can sway a politically engaged citizenry,” says Harkinson.

Regular consumption of sugary drinks has been associated with health problems such as diabetes and obesity. Supporters say that taxing beverages, the largest source of added sugar in the American diet, can help to prevent these problems by encouraging people to drink fewer empty calories. Soda taxes have also been promoted as a way to raise funds for cash-strapped governments. Other Californians seem to agree, as a public health study released in June found that most residents of Southern California support a soda tax.

According to the “No on D” campaign, the exemptions in the proposed rule create loopholes. They also say the tax may increase the cost of other foods. But with the American Beverage Association California PAC investing so much in the the campaign, it's clear the beverage industry is worried the tax will be effective at lowering soda and juice sales.

Arguments have also been put forward that a more effective policy to reducing obesity would be ending corn subsidies, which helps to keep the cost of sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup low.

The campaign in support of the soda tax has raised $259,585 reports the local news site Berkeleyside. Supporters include former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the American Heart Association.

A similar measure will also be voted on in San Francisco, where it will need two thirds of votes to win.

Why spend so much in Berkeley? The tax can become law with a simple majority of votes. If the proposal is approved, it will become the first U.S. city to pass such a law, setting a precedent for more to come.

Soda industry spends $1.7 million to fight $0.01 per ounce tax in Berkeley
The California town has become the latest battle ground in the soda wars, with a November ballot proposal to tax drinks with added sugar.

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