Berkeley passes soda tax; effort may be tougher elsewhere

BERKELEY Calif. (Reuters) - The California city of Berkeley overwhelmingly approved the first U.S. ballot measure to tax sugary soft drinks, and while supporters hope it will unleash similar efforts nationwide, organizers of the measure say their grassroots effort will not be easy to duplicate.

A sign for the "Yes on D" campaign in the window of the Measure D election headquarters in Berkeley, California November 3, 2014. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

The success in Tuesday’s vote in liberal Berkeley follows a string of failures to tax soda, including in nearby Richmond, California, in 2012, as well as in New York City.

Berkeley’s new law will impose a 1-cent-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. But a similar measure in nearby San Francisco was defeated on Tuesday, highlighting continuing challenges for future efforts.

Berkeley council member Linda Maio, one of the measure’s key backers, credited the success to lessons learned from Richmond’s failure, as well as local planning focused on her city.

For other cities, she plans a primer that will include pointers on private polling, building a base of volunteers and messaging, which in Berkeley’s case revolved around the impact diabetes has on the African American community.

The local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was one of the early supporters of the measure.

“Other towns would have to tailor for their own situation,” making it unlikely that Berkeley’s soda tax victory would be quickly replicated, Maio said.

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg donated $647,000 to Berkeley’s campaign, facing off against soft drink makers that spent more than $2 million. His efforts to limit soda sales in the nation’s largest city were previously thwarted by a legal challenge from the soda industry.

Bloomberg is ready to assist with future efforts in other municipalities but will decide whether to get involved based on the strength of each campaign and the chances of the measure passing, said Bloomberg aide Howard Wolfson.

“Overall, we are going to look aggressively to partner with local leadership,” he said.

Bloomberg chose not to get involved in San Francisco because he thought the two-thirds vote required to pass the tax was too difficult to reach, Wolfson said. In Berkeley, a majority vote was needed.

American Beverage Association spokesman Christopher Gindlesperger said Berkeley’s effort was a case of “venue-shopping” by soda-tax advocates who have little support elsewhere in the nation.

“By no means does Berkeley’s passing a soda tax portend a trend,” he said.

Maio and other organizers, including public health activist Vicki Alexander, say they spent more than a year planning the effort, meeting repeatedly with Richmond organizers, who told them what to expect, including an onslaught of anti-tax ads. [ID:nL1N0ST0SP]

Despite early entreaties from Berkeley organizers for help, Bloomberg’s donation came only late in the game, Alexander said. The group focused instead on winning the backing of influential local groups.

From the start, the Berkeley campaign was intent on independence.

When consultants for San Francisco’s soda tax measure showed up at a Berkeley planning session earlier this year to offer their input, they were turned away at the door.

Addiitonal reporting by Anjali Athavaley in New York; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Dan Grebler