THE BLOG
10/08/2014 03:50 pm ET Updated Dec 08, 2014

The Soda Tax Wars: Let's Help San Francisco and Berkeley Crush Big Soda

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Both San Francisco and Berkeley have approved November ballot measures asking voters to support taxes on sugary drinks.

Ballot Measure E in San Francisco requests voter approval of a 2 cents per ounce tax, with the revenue dedicated to nutrition and physical activity programs for children. It's a "Special Tax," which means the revenue is earmarked for a specific purpose. In the crazy world of California politics, a Special Tax requires a two-thirds vote for approval. The architects of the San Francisco ballot measure, Supervisors Scott Wiener and Eric Mar, reasoned that it would be easier to win voter approval if the revenue is specifically dedicated to programs that directly benefit San Francisco's kids. Their polling results confirmed their hunch.

In Berkeley, Ballot Measure D requests that voters approve a 1 cent per ounce tax. Berkeley polling results showed that voters would approve the measure as a "General Tax," requiring only a simple majority to win. Berkeley City Councilman Laurie Capitelli, one of the authors of the Berkeley measure, reassured voters that any and all soda tax revenue will be used for health and nutrition programs for Berkeley's children. The councilman claimed that it would be political suicide for any Berkeley councilmember to vote otherwise.

I support both the San Francisco "Yes on E" and the Berkeley "Yes on D" Campaigns.

The Science Supports a Soda Tax

Research continues to accumulate, showing that liquid sugar is a unique risk for a host of illnesses.

Soda Taxes Work

Opponents of soda taxes say they don't work. They point to a study from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Actually, that study showed that soda taxes do work. Weak soda taxes of 3 percent, without any accompanying public health campaign, work weakly. But, they work. They decrease soda consumption.

Now we have data from Mexico, where a soda tax of ten percent was enacted in January of 2014. Consumption of sugary drinks has already dropped 10 percent. Consumers have instead purchased bottled water, exactly as the proponenets of the tax had hoped.

Soda Taxes Hurt Big Soda, They Don't Hurt the Poor

One of Big Soda's standard claims is that soda taxes are regressive, and that they hurt poor and minority communities. Big Soda targets these same minority communities with advertising aimed at convincing poor black and brown youth that drinking soda is cool and sexy. The claim of Big Soda that these taxes hurt the poor has been studied by researchers at San Francisco General Hospital's Center for Vulnerable Populations. They found the opposite to be true.

Dr. Kristin Bibbins-Domingo heads up the Center for Vulnerable Populations. Her specialty is in doing research that accurately forecasts how public policy would affect health outcomes. She has studied the expected health impacts of soda taxes on African American and Latino communities. She found that passing even a 1 cent per ounce tax on soda would result in an 8 percent drop in diabetes cases in these minority communities. The health care savings alone from preventing these cases of diabetes would far outweigh any cost of the soda tax.

Evidence Shows Soda Tax Is Good for Jobs

Another claim by Big Soda is that passage of a soda tax would hurt the local economy. Dr. Lisa Powell and her colleagues at the University of Illinois published a study in April of 2014 investigating how a state wide soda tax in Illinois and in California would affect the respective job markets. They found that in each case a soda tax would result in a net job gain for the state.

A Chance to Make History and to Put Health First

A victory in either city will make national history. A double victory would even be, dare I say it, that much "sweeter."

The future health of both the San Francisco and Berkeley communities will be impacted by the vote. We can decrease consumption of sugary drinks and thereby lower diabetes rates by voting yes. For those of us who don't live in San Francisco or Berkeley we can support the campaigns financially and we can reach out to everyone we know in San Francisco and Berkeley and urge them to:
  • Vote Yes on E in San Francisco
  • Vote Yes on D in Berkeley.

For more information go to: choosehealthsf.com; berkeleyvsbigsoda.com.

As a Richmond City Councilman, Dr. Jeff Ritterman led the Richmond, CA Soda Tax effort in 2012.

Follow Jeff Ritterman, MD on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@JeffRitterman