Last year back in late November the issue of a potential sugar-sweetened beverage tax came up. The idea was to put a per ounce tax on such beverages, not as a way to generate sustaining revenue for the city, but rather as a means to discourage usage of the beverages that have been linked to health problems such as diabetes and obesity.
However, between pressure from the beverage industry and concerns about the lack of community discussion, council in February 2016 opted not to seek voter approval for such a tax. But on Tuesday the discussion reemerged.
There were concerns expressed from local businesses. After relating a list of challenges, the owner of Froggy’s asked council during public comment, “How are we going to track this? Because there is consumption versus sales. It’s customary for a free refill when you’re out at a restaurant.
“How are we going to measure how much soda is going into a mixed drink?” he asked. “We can’t pay a tax on something that we can’t track.”
He also noted, “The issue is tax versus health and safety. If the point is health and safety, then you have to go after all the sugar.” He said that there is sugar everywhere, “and so this is not a health and safety issue from our perspective, we see this as a money grab.”
He added that “these ordinances are going to push us all out of town.”
One difference now from a year ago, there is more data from the November 2014 Berkeley sugar-sweetened beverage tax. This spring, a study published in PLOS Medicine found that the tax is doing what it is supposed to do. Since Berkeley passed their tax, six other locations including San Francisco have passed similar taxes and the study published in the American Journal of Public Health showed that the tax decreased consumption of soda by 21 percent and increased water consumption by more than 63 percent in Berkeley after the passage of the tax.
The council knows that the American beverage industry will push back hard on any attempts at a soda tax. Small businesses are also afraid that reduction in consumption of soda will cut into their already-thin margins.
At the same time, the public health costs of obesity and the treatment for diseases like diabetes continues to soar.
The UCLA study from last March found that one out of every three young adults has prediabetes, a precursor to life-threatening type 2 diabetes, or undiagnosed diabetes, according to the UCLA study.
The study “offers alarming insights into the future of the nation’s diabetes epidemic,” a release stated. The study found that 13 million adults in California, which accounts for 46 percent of the state’s population, are estimated to have prediabetes or diabetes, while another 2.5 million adults (9 percent) have already been diagnosed with diabetes.
Dr. Harold Goldstein, the report’s co-author and executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, based in Davis, said in a release, “This is the clearest indication to date that the type 2 diabetes epidemic is out of control and getting worse. With limited availability of healthy food in low income communities, a preponderance of soda and junk food marketing, and urban neighborhoods lacking safe places to play, we have created a world where diabetes is the natural consequence.”
Where does the council come down on the soda tax?
Councilmember Will Arnold, drinking from a can of root beer, noted, “I enjoy root beer, I enjoy Coke and I’m OK spending an extra 12 cents a pop, so to speak.”
Councilmember Lucas Frerichs said, “I’m fine going in that direction (toward a sugar beverage tax).” Last time, he was opposed to putting it on the ballot. “The issue for me last time when it came up in December of 2015 was it did come up right before the deadline to put things on the ballot and there hadn’t been community conversation basically at all and that was the reasoning that I gave before.”
He noted that, even with just a mere mention, “both sides are very aware of the issue now, and everyone’s already engaged.”
He added that “there now is a track record… in other communities… and studies that have been done.”
Mayor Robb Davis pushed back on the critics of the soda tax, saying, “What I’m frustrated about is already tonight there was nothing but obfuscation and lies in what was said about the tax.
“That it’s going to be charged at the point of sale,” he said. “That’s just not true. It’s an excise tax.
“That it’s going to hurt small business,” he said. “There’s nothing in Berkeley or any other place that’s demonstrated that.
“It just boggles my mind the stuff that’s put out there already,” he said. “We’ve barely begun to talk about it. Which tells me we’re on the right track.”
He noted that Philadelphia passed this and “it’s not that big a deal anymore. I’m going to be really impatient with people that come down here and say things that are just not true about that. It doesn’t serve anybody’s interest. It just scares people.”
Mayor Davis said that he wants to explore the tax but “we have to start at 2 cents (per ounce). One cent is passé.”
Later he did say that he wants to know if the people who spoke out in favor of the tax were willing to go door to door to campaign for the measure. Without that, such a measure will not pass and, while he thinks the council should be the champion for the parcel tax, the public health community needs to do the heavy lifting for the soda tax.
In previous comments, the mayor warned that this is “the public health crisis of our time,” and in January he warned that we have children “whose lives are starting to be taken away by fatty liver disease and the problem of over-consumption of sugary beverages.
“These are lives lost, these are lives changed, these are families altered in ways that we can’t take back,” he continued.
“The challenge of sugar beverages is quite simple, they’re a delivery mechanism,” he explained. “They deliver fructose to the liver in probably the most efficient means of doing so. Quickly. And rather than being cleared by the liver, that sugar stays there and is turned into fat and that fat and the inhibition of fat burning that goes along with it, means that all the precursors of diabetes, heart disease and coronary artery disease – the genesis is occurring in that location.”
In Yolo County, the number is 48 percent of all adults – who have diabetes or prediabetes. As startling as that number may be, however, Yolo County is better off than most counties.
The council seems supportive of the idea now – will they still be when the industry dumps millions into a disinformation campaign and riles up the voters and small business owners? That is the key question.
—David M. Greenwald reporting