Berkeley campaign beats out big soda

While the Republicans were busy wiping the floor with Democrats on Election Day, the citizens of Berkeley, California, were making history.

An overwhelming majority of Berkeley’s voters – 75 percent – passed the nation’s first soda tax. The penny-per-ounce tax on all sugar-sweetened drinks may raise over $1 million per year toward health programs while discouraging soda consumption.

Nearly half of the added sugars Americans consume come in beverage form. Added sugars include all the table sugar, honey, high fructose corn syrup, and other calorie-packed sweeteners mixed into our food.

The American Heart Association recommends that women consume no more than 6 teaspoons of these sugars per day and urges men to limit themselves to 9. Yet the average American consumes 7.5 teaspoons a day just from sugary drinks alone.

So, should we tax the sweet stuff? Unsurprisingly, Big Soda doesn’t think so. The industry has poured over $100 million into fighting measures like the Berkeley soda tax in the last five years alone. And that’s just the money we know about.

In Berkeley, the soda industry spent $30 per registered voter to defeat the measure. However, the other side had its own 800-pound gorilla – former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. He poured $657,000 into the soda tax campaign.

I quit drinking soda about 10 years ago and believe that it would benefit public health if more Americans followed suit.

But I used to be agnostic about a soda tax. Yes, soda is bad for you. We’d all be better off if we didn’t drink it. But isn’t a tax going to disproportionately punish the poor?

Then Mexico passed a soda tax. Mexico is home to the highest per-capita soda consumption in the world. It’s also home to high rates of diabetes and a population that often lacks access to proper medical care.

Mexico’s tax immediately cut soda consumption.

In other words, maybe this kind of tax does work.

We use sin taxes on other products we wish to discourage, like alcohol and cigarettes. Combined state and local taxes on cigarettes top out at upwards of $5 or $6 per pack – far more than Berkeley’s penny-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks. And stemming the spread of preventable diseases can help offset the cost of these taxes to poor consumers.

Nutrition and food policy expert Marion Nestle recently chastised the soda industry on her blog for pretending to take action on public health while trying to block legislation – like Berkeley’s soda tax – that could cut into its profits.

“Agreeing to decrease soda consumption by 20 percent,” as the industry has, “is easy to do when demand is already falling rapidly,” she wrote. She added, “soda companies are making promises that are likely to be fulfilled anyway, whether the companies take any action or not.”

Going after the industry for selling “liquid candy,” Nestle also takes a swipe at diet sodas, citing solid evidence that they are linked to obesity, plus preliminary findings that artificial sweeteners affect intestinal bacteria and lead to glucose intolerance and insulin resistance.

With Big Soda making hollow promises and bankrolling anti-public health campaigns, it’s time to try something new. Maybe a tax is it – particularly in cities like Berkeley, where 75 percent of voters approve of it.

I hope that Berkeley serves as a test lab, providing a case study on whether soda taxes get Americans to consume less sugar. If it works, the rest of the nation should stand up to Big Soda and take this plunge.

Editor’s note: Jill Richardson is the author of, “Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It.”