Oakland City Council Puts Soda Tax on November Ballot

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Oakland's City Council voted unanimously to place a soda tax on the November ballot. If approved, Oakland would become the second city in the nation, after Berkeley, where a fee is charged on sugar-sweetened beverages.

Councilwoman Annie Campbell Washington sponsored the measure and expects big pushback from the beverage industry.

"We're expecting a huge fight," she said. "We saw in Berkeley that the beverage industry is willing to pour millions and millions into the fight against these kinds of taxes, and we expect the same thing here."

The Oakland measure is very similar to the one passed in Berkeley in 2014. It would levy a penny-per-ounce fee on most sugar-sweetened beverages (sodas, energy drinks, fruit-flavored beverages and more). The fee would be paid by distributors but is expected to be passed through to consumers.

Washington said the fee is projected to raise $6 million to $10 million for Oakland. An advisory panel would recommend health programs to fund with the generated revenue, but monies from the fee would not be earmarked for specific programs.

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The measure requires a simple majority, 50 percent plus one vote, for passage.

The soda industry opposes such fees, arguing that the focus on sugar-sweetened beverages oversimplifies complex health problems such as obesity and diabetes. It also says such fees hit poor people hardest.

Yet a long list of public health and community groups have already indicated their support for a soda tax. In a statement, Mary Pittman, president of the Oakland-based Public Health Institute, said sugar-sweetened beverages are among the biggest contributors to diabetes and other illnesses and disproportionately impact poor communities.

"It is time that big beverage companies dip into their millions of dollars of profits and help pay for the damage their products cause," Pittman said.

Soda tax supporters in San Francisco are gathering signatures to put a measure on the November ballot. A 2014 soda tax effort there failed, but that was an earmarked tax and needed a supermajority -- more than two-thirds vote -- to pass. It got only 55 percent. The new effort would follow the Berkeley/Oakland model. Proceeds would become general revenue, but an advisory board would recommend health programs to fund.

The deadline for signatures is July, but San Francisco Supervisor Malia Cohen, a supporter of the tax, earlier said she expected the 10,000 signatures to be in by late May.

Later this month, the Albany City Council will consider putting a soda tax on its November ballot.

"I believe when you look around the country, you'll see this is a movement," said Oakland City Council member Washington, referring to other Bay Area efforts and a proposal in Philadelphia. Advocates in Boulder, Colorado. are also working to place a soda tax on the ballot.

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"I think Oakland is a leader on this, with Berkeley," she said. "Oakland is going to be an incredibly important city. If this passes, it really gives a boost to the entire movement."

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