Drive around the streets of Berkeley, California and you’ll see “Yes on Measure D” signs everywhere. This morning, on the one-mile drive to my daughter’s elementary school, she and I counted ten. Measure D, also known as the soda tax, would seem a shoo-in for this city of 117,000, birthplace of Alice Waters’s locavore food movement and filled with kale-growing, health-conscious families.
The proposal is both simple and modest: Tax the distributors of sugary drinks at one penny per fluid ounce. Revenue from the tax, estimated to be $1.5 million a year, will go into the city’s general fund and a panel of community and child nutrition experts will recommend ways the City Council can direct the funds to children’s health initiatives. In early polling by the city, 66 percent of respondents were for the measure.
If it were just a matter of popular support, I’d put good money on Measure D in November—making Berkeley the first city in the United States to pass a tax on soda. But the beverage industry has their sights on this small Left-coast town. The companies recognize that the stakes are high because a win here would likely inspire more cities to propose taxes on sugary drink consumption.
So Big Soda is spending big here in Berkeley and across the Bay in San Francisco where a tax is on the ballot, too. On October 6th, the American Beverage Association—the trade group for the non-alcoholic beverage industry working for brands like Coca-Cola, Pepsi Cola, Dr. Pepper, and Gatorade—announced it was putting another $600,000 into its “No on D” campaign. Add that to the money the trade groups have already spent and the total spent fighting the tax is $1.4 million so far.
This money has paid for the so-called “Californians for Food & Beverage Choice,” an AstroTurf organization fully funded by the American Beverage Association, and for mailers and calls to Berkeley residents. It’s paid for radio and online ads on local media outlets, and for young men to pass out literature at public transit stations while others walk precincts, saying anything they think will stick, accurate or not. A friend texted me, a few nights ago, that a man was going door-to-door in our neighborhood handing out literature against Measure D. He said he was working for a City Council member opposed to the tax, but when she asked which one, he couldn’t come up with a name. That didn’t surprise either of us. The City Council is unanimously in support of the measure.
Big Soda is hoping that it can pour enough money into Berkeley to defeat the tax, like it has every time a city has tried to pass a similar measure in the United States. Two years ago, in nearby Richmond, California, the industry spent $2.5 million in a misinformation campaign and won by 34 percentage points. In 2010, when Philadelphia tried to pass a similar tax, Big Soda made timely contributions to the City Council, totaling $95,000, and the next year made good on a $10 million dollar pledge to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. The tax never passed.