Want to Get a Soda Tax in Your Town? Call Michael Bloomberg

The former New York City mayor is looking to back measures similar to the one that passed in Berkeley, Calif.

Health advocates attend a rally in favor of a soda tax at San Francisco City Hall on July 22.  (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Nov 6, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Two days after voters passed the nation’s first-ever soda tax, the question is becoming less about the prospects of other cities picking up policy measures from progressive Berkeley, Calif., than about the campaign’s biggest benefactor.

While much has been made of outside support for the opposition, which pulled in $2.4 million in donations from the soda industry, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg did his part to support the measure. He personally spent more on donations and direct ad buys ($657,000) than the Yes on Measure D campaign pulled in overall ($564,000), according to Berkeleyside. A late push helped air pricey TV ads during World Series games when the Giants were playing at home on their way to becoming champions.

And judging by comments made yesterday by Howard Wolfson, one of the former mayor’s advisers, during a call with reporters, billionaire Bloomberg is looking for more local measures to put his money behind.

“We are going to look aggressively to partner with local leadership, because we see an enormous, dam-breaking opportunity to see the success in Berkeley replicated in other places,” Wolfson said.

“We stand ready to assess and assist other local efforts in the coming election cycle,” he continued.

Success in Berkeley not only a major victory for Bloomberg, but a moment of redemption too. During his long tenure in New York’s City Hall, his notorious soda ban failed time and again. In Berkeley, he was able to support a measure that looked more like what he would have put forward in New York had he believed the city council there would pass it—an actual tax, instead of a suspect and ultimately illegal workaround done through the public health department.

But with mainstream public health advocacy and policy looking increasingly like the Bloomberg nanny state—trans fat bans, junk food taxes, posted calorie counts at fast-food restaurants—being termed out and terribly rich could provide the billionaire with an even better platform.

“If politicians want to stake their reputations on what Berkeley did, they do so at their own risk,” opposition spokesman Roger Salazar said in a statement yesterday.

As the Big Gulp ban debacle showed in New York, that’s not wholly reasonable advice—but having already suffered through the myriad appeals and endless barbs of his own failed attempt to limit soda consumption, Bloomberg has little to lose here. If he can bankroll successful soda taxes while out of office, it will only burnish his legacy as a public health crusader.