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Berkeley 'Says No To Big Soda,' First To Pass Tax On Sugary Drinks

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In the flurry of election results, don't miss this milestone with potential public health significance from Caifornia: Berkeley has voted to tax sugary drinks one penny per ounce, and a majority of San Franciscans voted for a similar measure, though it fell short of the two-thirds it needed to pass.

From the Los Angeles Times, which reports that Berkeley is "the first electorate in the nation to approve a tax on sodas and other sugary beverages":

The [Berkeley] measure was backed by public health advocates and the city's elected leaders, who said the tax would reduce consumption of sugary drinks and raise awareness of the link between sugary drinks and diabetes and other diseases. The measure's backers say a national soda tax in Mexico has caused people there to consume fewer sugary drinks.

The American Beverage Association spent $2.4 million to defeat Measure D, and an additional $9.1 million to fight San Francisco's Proposition E, which would have imposed a 2-cents-an-ounce tax on sodas and other sugar-sweetened drinks.

Though 54.5% of San Francisco voters backed the sugary-drink tax, a tally of 66.67% was needed to pass the measure. The two-thirds threshold was required because the tax revenue would have gone to a special fund for recreation and nutrition programs in schools and parks. The Berkeley measure needed only a majority to pass because that revenue went into the city's general fund.

"We're saying no to Big Soda," Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates said, according to the Associated Press. "We're saying that Berkeley and the rest of the country need to pay attention that soda is such a destructive product."

Proposals for a similar tax in Massachusetts have been floated for years now. A few examples:

• In 2009, a group of economists and public health experts, including those from Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health, called for a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages to fight obesity and fund health care costs.

• In 2011, Massachusetts pediatricians and other health-promoters concerned about obesity officially launched a concerted campaign against sugary drinks and candy, pushing a bill to remove the sales tax exemption on soda.

• In 2013, Gov. Deval Patrick pushed the idea of removing the tax exemption in the legislature, saying candy and soda should not be considered food and thus exempt from the state's 6.25 percent sales tax.

Thus far, the Mass. attempts to tax soda have failed. But meanwhile, evidence has been mounting that such efforts have an effect against obesity, and the Berkeley vote translates the data into political impact.

The Center For Science in the Public Interest hailed the vote as "a historic victory for public health," saying Berkeley has "shown it can be done."

On the other hand, the Associated Press quotes American Beverage Association spokesman Roger Salazar as unworried that Berkeley is a harbinger of sweeping change. Berkeley "doesn't look like Anytown USA," he says.

Readers? Do you think these California votes will have any effect elsewhere?

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.

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