Robert Reich: Big Soda may have finally met its match

The former secretary of labor details Berkeley's campaign to become the first city in the nation to pass a soda tax


Robert Reich
September 10, 2014 3:30PM (UTC)
This originally appeared on Robert Reich's blog.

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.

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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.

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.

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The new movement isn’t nearly dramatic or idealistic as the old one, but the odds of victory were probably better fifty 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 to approve; Berkeley needs a mere majority.)

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.

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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 ten years ago, but kids (and many adults) are still guzzling it.

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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.

Even though a Field Research poll released in February found 67 percent of California voters (and presumably a similar percentage of Berkeley voters) favor a soda tax if revenues are spent on healthy initiatives, it will be an uphill fight.

Since 2009, some thirty special taxes on sugary drinks have been introduced in various states and cities, but none has passed. Not even California’s legislature, with Democratic majorities in both houses, could enact a proposal putting warning labels on sodas.

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Even New York City’s former and formidable mayor Michael Bloomberg – no slouch when it came to organizing – lost to Big Soda. He wanted to limit the size of sugary drinks sold in restaurants and other venues to16 ounces.

But the beverage industry waged a heavy marketing campaign against the proposal, including ads featuring the Statue of Liberty holding up a giant soda instead of a torch. It also fought it through the courts. Finally the state’s highest court ruled that the city’s Board of Health overstepped its authority by imposing the cap.

Fifty years ago, Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement captured the nation’s attention and imagination. It signaled a fundamental shift in the attitudes of young Americans toward older forms of authority.

Times have changed. Four years ago the Supreme Court decided corporations were people under the First Amendment, entitled to their own freedom of speech. Since then, Big Soda has poured a fortune into defeating ballot initiatives to tax or regulate sugared drinks.

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But have times changed all that much? In its battle with Big Soda, Berkeley may once again make history.


Robert Reich

Robert B. Reich is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. He served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written 15 books, including the best sellers "Aftershock", "The Work of Nations," and"Beyond Outrage," and, his most recent, "The Common Good." He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and co-creator of the award-winning documentary, "Inequality For All." He's also co-creator of the Netflix original documentary "Saving Capitalism."

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