Berkeley vs. Big Soda Shows Grassroots Democracy in Action

A new chronicle of the successful soda-tax fight hopes to inspire a nationwide movement.

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

Mar 29, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Coke’s current slogan may be “Taste the Feeling,” but if you want a real feel-good pick-me-up today—without all that superfluous sugar—check out the recently launched website Berkeley vs. Big Soda, which recounts the 2014 campaign to pass a soda tax in the California city.

It’s a genuine dose of can-do democracy in action, liable to inspire a bit of heart swell in even the most jaded political cynic. It’s timely too, as a number of other cities and states, from Philadelphia to California, consider levying their own soda taxes.

The site chronicles the successful grassroots effort to pass the first municipal tax on sugar-sweetened beverages in the nation, complete with a bite-size 14-minute documentary that makes for a perfect workday distraction while you sip, well, hopefully something not chock-full of syrupy sweetener.

Far from being just an exercise in pat-on-the-back self-promotion, Berkeley vs. Big Soda is on a mission to inspire other local citizens in places across the country to campaign for their own soda taxes and to provide organizers with a sort of blueprint on how to beat big soda’s powerful propaganda machine.

“There are people who say, ‘Well, that’s Berkeley, and no one else can do it,’ ” Holly Scheider, outreach coordinator for the Berkeley Health Child Center, says in the documentary. “And I say, ‘That’s absolutely wrong—everyone can do it.’ ” Or, as Larry Tramutola, chief strategist for the pro-tax “Yes on D” campaign, puts it: “Once Goliath has been beaten, others think, ‘Maybe we can too.’ ” The ballot measure authorizing the soda tax passed with a stunning 75 percent of the vote.

Even in a legendarily progressive enclave such as Berkeley, the effort to pass the one-cent-per-liter tax on sugary beverages seemed like a long shot at first. The soda industry had already beat back similar proposed taxes in some 30 communities across the country, and it would spend $2.3 million on efforts to defeat the Berkeley tax. Across the bay in San Francisco, a similar ballot measure put in front of voters the same year failed to pass.

As the documentary shows, that outsize spending included what you would expect, such as buying up billboards and blanketing public transit stops with “No on D” ads. But there were insidious tactics as well, such as paying some local residents $15 to $20 per hour to appear in public as “No on D” supporters, carrying signs and wearing T-shirts. As one pro-tax advocate from a Latino community organization pointed out, many of these hired shills were chosen because they were people of color, which would seem to align with one of big soda’s disingenuous talking points when it comes to soda taxes—namely, that such taxes disproportionally target low-income communities of color.

The only reason that might be true is because the soda industry disproportionately targets those communities with its marketing, which leads to higher consumption rates of sugary beverages and, in turn, higher rates of obesity and diabetes. Whereas a third of all American children born between 2000 and 2011 are predicted to develop type 2 diabetes during their lifetime—a stat that’s shocking in and of itself—that rises even more alarmingly to one in two children for Latinos and African Americans.

Another big part of big soda’s antitax campaign centered on what would be done with the revenue generated by the tax, with the industry claiming it would disappear into the city’s general fund. But Berkeley is proving antitax skeptics wrong on that front as well. Earlier this year, the Berkeley City Council approved $1.5 million for community-based efforts to battle soda consumption, with roughly half going to public school nutrition-education programs and the other half available as grants to community organizations.

It’s a drop in the bucket compared with the estimated $1 million per day the soda industry spends on marketing just to teenagers and kids, but it’s a healthy step in the right direction.