Is the Soda Tax Movement Heading to a City Near You?

Sugary drinks will now cost a penny more per ounce—but it remains to be seen if similar measures can succeed elsewhere.

A sign for the Yes on D campaign in the window of the Measure D election headquarters in Berkeley, Calif. (Photo: Robert Galbraith/Reuters)

Nov 5, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

It has been 40 years since the Free Speech Movement began on the campus of UC Berkeley. Fighting against the administration’s ban on on-campus political activity, students held a series of protests that not only set the stage for the decade’s political upheavals but helped cement the campus and the city as symbols of dissent.

While a spontaneous sit-in protest and a ballot initiative voting campaign may both fairly fall under the term direct democracy, the nationwide movement public health advocates are hoping will once again start in Berkeley is a bit more narrow in scope. Last night, the city passed the United States’ first-ever soda tax, and by a significant margin—the measure, which will add a one-cent-an-ounce bump to the cost of sugary beverages, received 75 percent of the vote. But will the victory lead to a national movement like the UC Berkeley protests did in 1964?

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Across the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, where a similar, more progressive tax failed in yesterday’s election—following a $9 million opposition campaign—it would appear that sin taxes on soda aren't exactly ready to take off. Then again, the two-cent-per-ounce tax voted down in San Francisco had key differences beyond the price tag. The measure would have funneled nearly all the funds into health and nutrition programs and thereby required a two-thirds margin to pass.

The beverage industry, which spent an additional $2.1 million on the other side of the bay, is trying to paint the Berkeley victory as an anomaly.

“People don’t support taxes and bans on common grocery items, like soft drinks,” the American Beverage Association said in a statement. “That’s why the public policy debate has largely moved on from taxes and bans.”

That’s far from being the case. Mexico’s nationwide junk-food tax is already proving effective at reducing sales, and judging by the late $650,000 push the Berkeley measure received from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the money and support is out there. But the question remains if Berkeley can help spark yet another movement.