Berkeley Passes the Nation’s First Soda Tax

Last night, Berkeley’s Measure D – one of two proposed soda taxes in the Bay Area – passed with a wide margin at 75.12% of the vote. While the ballot measure only needed a simple majority to win, the community of 116,000 Berkeley residents rallied behind community health leaders to show their overwhelming support for a tax on sugary drinks to addresses chronic health issues like type 2 diabetes and obesity. Berkeley, a city of many health-promoting firsts (such as smoke-free ordinances in public places and school policies for healthy foods), has made history once again with the nation’s first-ever soda tax.

This is a huge victory not only for Berkeley, but for the public health advocates that have fought for a soda tax in 30 municipalities across the U.S., only to be squashed by the beverage industry every time. In Berkeley, it was a small town version of David versus Goliath (in fact, the name of Berkeley’s campaign is Berkeley vs. Big Soda) – however, despite spending $2.3 million in Berkeley on an opposition campaign, the beverage industry was unable to quell the growing momentum of the anti-soda movement. While San Francisco’s similar soda tax didn’t reach the ⅔ it needed to pass, still a majority of voters (over 55%) were in support – reinforcing the Bay Area’s message to the beverage industry that “the tides have turned on Big Soda.”

Excise taxes on sugary drinks levy a tax on distributors of the beverages at a rate of 1-2 cents per ounce (Berkeley’s is a 1-cent-per-ounce) – thereby minimizing the impact on consumers while holding industry accountable for the negative health effects of such products. Berkeley’s tax includes thoughtful exemptions, such as milk drinks, 100% juice, diet sodas, infant formula, and a few others. The idea is that, eventually, the tax raises awareness such that consumers reduce their consumption. It’s also a possibility that distributors will push down the tax to consumers, thereby increasing prices. Revenue generated from the tax is slated to go into Berkeley’s general fund, with an oversight panel made up of medical, public health, and nutrition experts to make recommendations for how the funds are spent (likely on health promotion activities).

The public health world will be watching Berkeley closely as the city prepares to implement the tax, and prove how effective this type of health policy can be. Mexico, which passed a similar tax last year, has already seen a 10% decline in sugary drink consumption – here’s hoping that Berkeley has the same success!


Disclaimer: The author is a volunteer for Berkeley vs. Big Soda.

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5 responses to “Berkeley Passes the Nation’s First Soda Tax”

  1. There are more than twice as many calories in a 12 ounce bottle of Starbucks Coffee Frappuccino (290) than in a 12 ounce can of Coca Cola (140). Why tax the coke and not the coffee?

    • Under Berkeley’s tax, both of the drinks you mention would be taxed. Starbucks Frappuccinos (and many other coffee/latte drinks) contain a sweetener syrup that would be taxed before it even makes it into the drink.

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