Will the Bay Area Get Another Soda Tax in the Fall?

Voters in Oakland will weigh in on the issue in the November election.
(Photo: Sam Hodgson/Reuters)
Apr 21, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Brace yourself, Oakland—the soda tax wars could soon be coming to you.

Barely a week after a proposed statewide tax on sugar-sweetened beverages died in the California legislature, here comes news that lawmakers in Oakland are seeking to put just such a tax before voters on the November ballot. The one-cent-per-ounce tax on soda and other sugary drinks appears to mirror the one approved by voters in nearby Berkeley in 2014, and if the battle over that tax is any indication, Oakland residents could be facing an onslaught of antitax campaigning sponsored by the soda industry.

Soda tax advocates in Oakland would do well to check out the recently launched website Berkeley vs. Big Soda, which chronicles the David-versus-Goliath grassroots effort to counter beverage makers’ big spending and dirty political tricks, such as hiring local shills at $20 per hour to appear as genuine antitax supporters. It didn’t work. Berkeley voters overwhelmingly passed their soda tax by a margin of 3 to 1.

But even as public health experts increasingly say that taxing sugary beverages may be one of the most effective ways to cut consumption of the empty, excess calories that are helping to fuel America’s obesity epidemic while generating funds for public health and nutritional programs, Berkeley remains an anomaly. Back in 2012, eager City Councilwoman Leslie Knope on NBC’s Parks and Recreation may have said “yea” to a soda tax in, of all places, resolutely red-state Indiana—but in the real world in 2016, dyed-in-blue Berkeley is the only place in the country where such a tax exists, while efforts to pass similar taxes have failed in scores of cities nationwide.

True, some of those defeats could be described as a technicality. One of the soda industry’s key tactics for assailing such taxes is to sow suspicion in voters’ minds about just where the revenue will go: Lawmakers say the money will be used to combat diet-related ills such as type 2 diabetes, but is that what it really will be used for? It’s disingenuous, of course: In California, any tax that a municipality tries to pass that won’t go into the city’s general fund is considered a “special tax” that requires a two-thirds supermajority of voters to approve. Thus, San Francisco’s “special tax” on sugary drinks, which also appeared on the ballot in 2014, failed—even as it garnered a solid 55 percent of the vote.

In other words, in California if you want to earmark a tax to fight things like obesity and diabetes, you need 66 percent of voters to approve. If you put the money in the general fund, you only need a simple majority—but the soda industry will assault the tax because it’s not earmarked to fund public health programs.

Revenue from the proposed tax in Oakland would, like Berkeley’s, go into the city’s general fund. As of now, the nascent fight appears to be shaping up along similar battle lines as did the fight in Berkeley, with local lawmakers decrying the impact of overconsumption of sugar-sweetened beverages on the health of residents, particularly among lower-income minority communities.

As Oakland City Councilmember Annie Campbell Washington put it to Oakland North, “The reason why I really got onboard with that idea is that if you start to do research on sugar consumption, you’ll start to quickly realize that sugar in liquid form is very toxic. A group of doctors, dentists and health experts came to meet with me to talk about sugar and its impact on our community, and more specifically the diseases related to sugar consumption, such as diabetes and tooth decay in children.”

Is that really the best way to sell a skeptical American public on taxing its beloved 20-ounce Cokes? A new tactic appears to be emerging, one that relies less on the predictable “nanny state” health arguments and more on exciting voters about what else that big pot of tax money could be used for.

On the opposite coast from Oakland, Philadelphia’s mayor has been campaigning for a soda tax in his city. It would seem a tough sell: The proposed three-cent-per-ounce tax is a whopper, three times the amount of the one passed in Berkeley; it would add a considerable think-twice-about-it surcharge of 60 cents to a 20-ounce bottle of soda.

But as The New York Times recently reported, Mayor Jim Kenney isn’t talking about obesity or diabetes or “toxic” sugar at all. Instead, he’s talking about using the soda tax revenue to fund politically popular programs like, say, universal pre-K. It’s an idea that attracted a big-name shout-out this week when Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton on a campaign stop in Philly said she was “very supportive” of Kenney’s plan, according to CNN. Political consultant Larry Tramutola, a veteran of the Berkeley soda tax campaign, told the Times, “I think Philadelphia may change the whole conversation about soda taxes.”

As for the mayor, when asked about how his proposed tax might benefit public health, he responded: “There’s really serious health benefits in pre-K.”