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Berkeley City Council may put sugary drink tax before voters

Berkeley City Council to consider putting sweetened-beverage tax before voters in November
Beverage industry gearing up to fight proposed sugar-sweetened drink taxes in S.F. and maybe Berkeley too
Proponents say sugar-sweetened beverage taxes are needed to promote health; opponents call them regressive

The Berkeley City Council on Tuesday evening is scheduled to vote on whether to put a tax of 1 cent per ounce on soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages before voters on the November ballot.

A yes vote by the council -- where there appears to be little opposition -- would make Berkeley the second Bay Area city headed for a bruising battle with the beverage industry.

A coalition of San Francisco supervisors in February placed on the ballot a tax of 2 cents per ounce on sugar-sweetened drinks. The estimated $31 million in annual proceeds from that measure would go to city and public school nutrition, health and physical activity programs to combat diabetes, obesity and other negative health effects of sugary-beverage consumption, backers said.

Because San Francisco's proceeds are dedicated to a specific purpose, its measure requires a two-thirds vote to pass. Berkeley's, however, would go to the general fund, so it requires only a simple majority, said Xavier Morales, executive director for the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California and co-director for Latinos Unidos de Berkeley, among the coalition members promoting the tax.

Morales said proponents on the Berkeley City Council have assured the coalition that revenue raised -- estimated at $1 million a year -- would go to nutritional and educational programs.

Councilwoman Linda Maio, a key backer, told the San Francisco Chronicle that school gardens and door-to-door education in low-income neighborhoods are among the programs under consideration. She could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday afternoon.

Similar measures in Richmond and El Monte went down to resounding defeat in 2012, but Morales said he is hopeful, given Berkeley's proactive stance on other public health issues. (The city has its own public health department, a relative rarity.)

"We need it because of the epidemic of diabetes not just at large but specifically in the Latino and African American communities," said Morales, a Berkeley resident and parent. "This is a silent killer."

The measures are already being aggressively opposed by Californians for Food & Beverage Choice, an organization self-described as spearheaded by the American Beverage Assn.

Spokesman Roger Salazar said the group expects the Berkeley council to vote to put the measure on the ballot.

"Our view basically is that beverage taxes aren’t the solution for changing behaviors or teaching people about healthy lifestyles," he said in an interview. "A regressive tax on common grocery items like sugar-sweetened beverages in Berkeley won’t make people any healthier, but it does have an impact on businesses and consumers who are already struggling to make ends meet."

Last month, a proposed bill that would have made California the first state to require warning labels on sugary drinks went down to defeat in an Assembly committee, in part because of industry opposition.

Follow me on Twitter at @leeromney.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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