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Berkeley vs. Big Soda

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Cross-posted from Robert Reich Blog

Berkeley vs. Big Soda campaign to pass a tax on sugary drinks
(image by Clancey B)

I was phoned the other night in middle of dinner by an earnest young man named Spencer, who said he was doing a survey.

Rather than hang up I agreed to answer his questions. He asked me if I knew a soda tax would be on the ballot in Berkeley in November. When I said yes, he then asked whether I trusted the Berkeley city government to spend the revenues wisely.

At that moment I recognized a classic "push poll," which is part of a paid political campaign.

So I asked Spencer a couple of questions of my own. Who was financing his survey? "Americans for Food and Beverage Choice," he answered. Who was financing this group? "The American Beverage Association," he said.

Spencer was so eager to get off the phone I didn't get to ask him my third question: Who's financing the American Beverage Association? It didn't matter. I knew the answer: Pepsico and Coca Cola.

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Welcome to Berkeley, California: Ground Zero in the Soda Wars.

Fifty years ago this month, Berkeley was the epicenter of the Free Speech Movement. Now, Berkeley is moving against Big Soda.

The new movement isn't nearly as dramatic or idealistic as the old one, but the odds of victory were probably better 50 years ago. The Free Speech Movement didn't challenge the profitability of one of the nation's most powerful industries.

Sugary drinks are blamed for increasing the rates of chronic disease and obesity in America. Yet efforts to reduce their consumption through taxes or other measures have gone nowhere. The beverage industry has spent millions defeating them.

If, on November 4, a majority of Berkeley voters say yes to a one-cent-per-fluid-ounce tax on distributors of sugary drinks, Berkeley could be the first city in the nation to pass a soda tax. (San Franciscans will be voting on a 2-cent per ounce proposal requiring two-thirds of them approve; Berkeley needs a mere majority.)

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But if a soda tax can't pass in the most progressive city in America, it can't pass anywhere. Big Soda knows that, which is why it's determined to kill it here.

Taxing a product to reduce its consumption has been effective with cigarettes. According to the American Cancer Society, every 10 percent increase in the cost of a pack of cigarettes has caused a 4 percent decline in the rate of smoking.

And for years cigarette manufacturers waged an all-ought war to prevent any tax or regulation. They eventually lost, and today it's hard to find anyone who proudly smokes.

Maybe that's the way the Soda Wars will end, too. Consumption of sugary soft drinks is already down somewhat from what it was 10 years ago, but kids (and many adults) are still guzzling it.

Berkeley's Soda War pits a group of community organizations, city and school district officials, and other individuals (full disclosure: I'm one of them) against Big Soda's own "grassroots" group, describing itself as "a coalition of citizens, local businesses, and community organizations" without identifying its members.

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Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor and Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, has a new film, "Inequality for All," to be released September 27. He blogs at www.robertreich.org.

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