THE BLOG
11/13/2014 10:04 am ET Updated Jan 13, 2015

Why the Soda Tax Is So Important

Justin Sullivan via Getty Images

Berkeley made history this November with the passage of the soda tax. It's the first city in the U.S. to crush Big Soda and pass a tax. Neighboring San Francisco is entitled to some bragging rights as well. The SF soda tax measure garnered 55 percent of the popular vote this November. More than 116,000 San Franciscans voted in favor of the soda tax. By my calculations, that's more "yes" votes for a soda tax than ever before, anywhere. Unfortunately, due to California's backward voter laws, SF's special tax measure needed a two-thirds majority to become law.

In both Berkeley and San Francisco, Big Soda put gross amounts of money into opposing the ballot measures. But the science was never contested. This marks a major shift. We all now know that a can of soda a day increases our risk of developing Type 2 diabetes and of having a heart attack by about 20-25 percent over the course of a decade or two.

Sugary drink intake has also been linked to stroke, high blood pressure, obesity, fatty liver disease, cancer, dementia and poor sperm motility.

Dr. Kristin Bibbins-Domingo is an associate professor of medicine, of epidemiology and of biostatistics at UCSF. Her research focuses on what the likely health outcome of soda taxes would be. Using complex computer modeling, her data show that if the rest of the country adopted a soda tax like Berkeley's we would prevent 100,000 cases of heart disease, 8,000 strokes, and 26,000 deaths over the next 10 years. We would also prevent 240,000 cases of diabetes every single year.

The People vs. Big (fill in the blank)

As impressive as these gains in population health are, the importance of the soda tax goes far beyond the health benefits that can be expected from decreasing consumption.

The Berkeley soda tax victory is a successful example of an empowered community insisting that the health of its children come before the profits of transnational corporations. In this post-Citizens United world, grassroots people's movements are defending community and planetary health against the power and wealth of some of the largest corporations on earth. Sometimes successful, sometimes not, the pattern is the same. Real grassroots movements are taking on astro-turf groups of hired guns funded by fabulously wealthy corporations.

If Berkeley can crush Big Soda, other cities can too. And if Big Soda can be defeated, other mega-corporations can too!

Unfortunately we weren't successful in Oregon and Colorado, where corporate mega-bucks held sway. Citizens in Oregon and Colorado sought to have the right to know what is in their food. Seems like a simple request, a right really. They were defeated by corporate giants Monsanto, Coke, and Pepsi, who poured more than $25 million into the campaigns to defeat the measures. The corporate giants are rightfully afraid that if people know it's genetically modified, they will not buy it.

There is a good reason for consumers to be concerned about the safety of our food supply. It was recently revealed by the General Accounting Office of the U.S. Government that the FDA does not test our food for glyphosate residues. Glyphosate is the main ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup, and the most commonly used herbicide on earth. Genetically-modified (GM) soy and corn are designed to be grown on fields sprayed with this chemical. Food derived from these plants, or meat from animals fed on them, will often contain glyphosate residues. Recent evidence shows that glyphosate causes birth defects and is tightly linked to cancer.

Since the FDA isn't testing for glyphosate, the least they could do for consumers would be to let us know which foods have GM soy and GM corn in them.

In Maui, a happier result: A coalition of anti-GM forces was successful in passing a moratorium on GM farming in Maui. They pointed out that tourism is the island's number one industry and that the spread of GM farming on Maui threatens the island's image as well as its environment. Monsanto and Dow spent more than $8 million to try to defeat the measure. As a result of the election, Maui now has the strongest local GM restrictions in the nation, including a temporary ban on all GM crop production and experimentation until studies show no harm. The day following the passage of the moratorium, John P. Purcell, Vice President of Monsanto Hawaii Business, said that the company intends to challenge the ordinance.

In my hometown of Richmond, progressives won an amazing victory in municipal elections over Chevron's chosen slate. Chevron poured over $3 million into our local election, financing a dirty campaign in which progressives were repeatedly and unfairly attacked. Chevron also underwrote a mayoral campaign that engaged in offensive race baiting.

We are faced with this pattern of attempted corporate dominance in so many areas.

King CONG (Coal, Oil, Nukes and Gas corporations) is obstructing us from transitioning to renewable energy, at a time when the laws of physics are demanding that we do so or face catastrophe. In a news interview published in the Washington Post in January of 2013 Chevron CEO John Watson made clear that the oil giant's position is that climate change must come second to economic growth and the continued exploitation of fossil fuels.

I'm sorry, John, but I don't really think the laws of physics are negotiable.

The industrial food conglomerate is soaking our planet in dangerous poisons, contaminating nature with genetically modified organisms, polluting our national water supply, destroying our soil, destabilizing our climate, and making our antibiotics less effective. At the same time they are providing us with food contaminated with pesticides and a never ending parade of processed junk masquerading as food. And then the chutzpah to advertise it to our kids!

Community Unity is Our Sling and Stone

Part of the ability to win these struggles is the belief that we can. The soda tax victory in Berkley has shown us that Goliath isn't all he's cracked up to be. Actually, that sword gets mighty heavy, as does that armor. David was quick and agile. He changed the rules of the game.

That's our task, to keep beating Goliath. We can do it, soda tax after soda tax. We can also do it by getting sugary beverages out of our hospitals and medical clinics, out of our day care centers, and out of our government buildings. We are only limited by our own creativity and willingness to work hard.

Right now in some cities, the soda tax may be the low hanging fruit. If it's your city, please go pick it. In other areas, like my hometown, our struggle is in confronting the attempt at domination by big oil corporations. In other areas, the fight to label genetically modified food still needs to be waged and won.

The victory in Berkeley is telling us that our destiny is, or can be, in our own hands. The Berkeley community stood together even as Big Soda attempted to peel off one community group or another. That's an essential lesson of Berkeley's victory. If we are smart, stick together, work hard, believe deeply in what we are doing, and embrace a truly righteous cause, we can beat Goliath.