Three years ago, Richmond City Councilman Jeff Ritterman became aware that about a third of his city’s fifth- and seventh- graders were obese, and that the numbers were getting worse.
A retired cardiologist who got into politics to improve public health, Ritterman began researching the issue. He concluded that sugary drinks were a culprit. The empty calories made kids fat and susceptible to incurable illnesses, such as diabetes.
“It was clear to me that it was a crisis,” he told me.
In 2012, he persuaded the council to put a measure taxing sugary drinks on the city’s November ballot. “Consumption taxes” have proved effective in reducing smoking rates and lowering tobacco-related ailments such as heart disease and lung cancer. Why not do the same to soda?
Two weeks later, then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed his infamous 16-ounce limit on soft drinks. While that ultimately doomed fight captured headlines, Richmond was quietly becoming an important front in the fight against liquid sugar.
The American Beverage Assn., which represents Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Dr Pepper Snapple Group, geared up. It funded a “grassroots” organization, the Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes, which according to the Berkeley Media Studies Group, tried to exploit racial tension in the city.
The soda tax, said the coalition, was a “racist ploy” that would “marginalize people of color.”
The strategy worked.
The soda tax failed. And that’s been the case pretty much everywhere else it’s been introduced in the last several years. Americans have refused to treat soda pop the way they treat tobacco.
Until this week.
On Tuesday, Berkeley passed the country’s first soda tax — a penny per ounce of soda, energy drink or sweetened tea — with a stunning 75% of the vote.
Supporters of the tax included Berkeley food luminaries Alice Waters and Michael Pollan. (A majority of San Francisco voters also backed a soda tax, but that measure fell short of the two-thirds needed to pass.)
The beverage industry spent about $2.3 million in Berkeley. Bloomberg ponied up $647,000.
Public health experts were almost giddy.
“This is absolutely historic, and I think it portends what you will later see happening across the country,” said obesity expert Kelly Brownell, dean of Duke University’s school of public policy. “It mirrors what happened with tobacco taxes, when the industry spent a huge amount of money and won the initial skirmishes before losing in places like Berkeley.”
UC San Francisco epidemiologist and biostatistician Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, using computer models, has found that a penny-per-ounce soda tax would probably avert a quarter of a million new cases of diabetes each year across the country. Over a decade, she and her colleagues estimate, a national soda tax could also help prevent 100,000 cases of heart disease, 8,000 strokes and 26,000 deaths.
“The first municipality to be able to pass a soda tax is a very big deal,” she told me. “This has the potential to be a tipping point.”
The pro-soda forces immediately dismissed the Berkeley victory.
“Berkeley was low-hanging fruit,” said Roger Salazar, No on Measure D spokesman. The vote, he said, was “unfortunate but not surprising, given some of the dubious measures that have come out of Berkeley.”
What other dubious measures have come out of Berkeley? Oh, you know, just silly stuff: No-smoking sections in restaurants. Curb cuts for people in wheelchairs.
“Big Soda,” as the industry has been dubbed, resolutely denies that its products can make you sick, and says soda taxes won’t make people healthier. American Beverage Assn. spokesman Christopher Gindlesperger even suggested that Berkeley’s Measure D was nothing more than a “money grab.”
“Berkeley is not like mainstream America,” Gindlesperger said. “If politicians in this country want to stake their reputations on what Berkeley’s done, then they do so at their own risk.”
Gindlesperger also scoffed at the relatively small number of voters in Berkeley who approved the soda tax — 17,000 out of the 22,000 who voted Tuesday. “The Giants just won the World Series. You could put three or four times the number of people who voted in Berkeley in Giants Stadium. Think about that,” he said.
But whom should we believe, I asked, public health experts such as Brownell and Bibbins-Domingo, who have no interest in the state of Berkeley’s municipal coffers, or someone trying to sell us sugary soft drinks?
“You’re a bright woman,” he said. “Listen to the voice inside your head. It’s common sense.”
I was terribly flattered.
So I took his advice. But the only voice inside my head was Ritterman’s, and it was terrifying: “We know we are being peddled a product that is completely unhealthy. When we consume it, we get diabetes, fatty liver disease, stroke, high blood pressure, dementia. That is the data. Liquid sugar is bad.”