Berkeley Voters Pass Tax on Sugary Drinks

Berkeley voters became the first in the country to approve taxing sodas to curb consumption, after costly campaigns by the soda industry helped defeat similar taxes in more than 30 other cities and states in recent years.

In San Francisco, meanwhile, voters Tuesday became the latest around the nation to reject a soda tax, failing to give the measure the two-thirds support it needed to pass.

The ballot measure in 100,000-resident Berkeley needed only a simple majority to pass, and won by a wide margin. The measure will require distributors of soft-drinks and certain other sugary drinks to pay a one-cent per ounce tax, which will go to the city's general fund. Supporters of the tax pinned soda as a main culprit in obesity and related diseases including diabetes.

"We're saying no to Big Soda," Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates said. "We're saying that Berkeley and the rest of the country need to pay attention that soda is such a destructive product." Earlier on Tuesday, Bates predicted the measure would win in Berkeley, the birthplace of many movements, and that the soda crackdown would eventually "sweep the nation."

Soft-drink makers had spent more than $10 million in Berkeley and in San Francisco to defeat the tax proposals.

""In some ways, their campaign helped us," Yes on Measure D spokesman Larry Tramultola said. "I think in the end, people said why are they so adamant about beating this?"

Roger Salazar, a spokesman for the opposition campaign by the American Beverage Association in Berkeley and San Francisco, argued the Berkeley vote meant little nationally.

"Berkeley is very eclectic. It doesn't look like Anytown USA," he said. "Berkeley was low-hanging fruit, and doesn’t look like mainstream America.  If politicians want to stake their reputations on what Berkeley did, they do so at their own risk."

In San Francisco, meanwhile, voters "made it clear that they can decide for themselves what to eat and drink," Salazar said.

Berkeley and San Francisco have a record of embracing social change, making the two cities something of a last and best shot for a soda tax in the eyes of the idea's supporters.

Berkeley voters made the city a nuclear-free zone in the 1980s, and voters in both cities passed measures establishing benefits for domestic partners, also in the 1980s. Bans on plastic bags received support long before the state imposed its own ban this year.

Heavy advertising on radio, television and the internet by the $76 billion U.S. soft-drink industry made the San Francisco soda-tax proposal the second-most expensive campaign involving a ballot initiative in city history.

In Berkeley, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg — with an $85,000 contribution — was among the supporters encouraging voters to pass the soda tax. The soda industry gathered $1.4 million to fight the Berkeley soda tax.

Bloomberg saw a court battle waged by the soda industry defeat his own effort to impose a limit on soft-drink sizes in New York City.

The California Legislature has made at least six attempts to impose some kind of tax on sweetened beverages, all of which failed.

Supporters of such taxes say soda is a main culprit in rising obesity rates and related diseases including diabetes.

The American Beverage Association has portrayed the soda tax as driving up the cost of groceries for less-advantaged families. Studies show that Americans with less education drink twice as many soft drinks as consumers with a college education.

Already, some Berkeley consumers said the entire campaign has made them more aware of what they drink.

"I’ve actually been cutting back on my consumption," Arthur Lei said on Wednesday. "As I’m getting older, I’m more concerned about my health."

And Kelley Devanathan said: "I’m from the Midwest, where people drink soda all the time, and they would be outraged over this … but I think it’s pioneering something that might become a trend."

NBC Bay Area's Lisa Fernandez and Nannette Miranda contributed to this report.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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