The Bay Area Takes on Big Soda, Again

October 14, 2016

This November, Bay Area voters decide whether to pass soda taxes in San Francisco (Prop V), Oakland (Measure HH), and Albany (Measure O1). After a successful ballot measure in Berkeley and defeat in San Francisco in 2014, this new wave of campaigns is expanding the fight against Big Soda.

The sugary beverage industry is hitting back hard, pouring millions of dollars into mailers and ads attempting to frame the measure as a “grocery tax,” rather than a public health campaign. But last month, an Alameda County court ruling uprooted the basis of the American Beverage Association’s deceptive counter-campaign.

We spoke with Yes on HH spokesperson Diane Woloshin, the Coalition Director at Coalition for Healthy Oakland Children, to learn more about the soda tax, deconstruct the “grocery tax” myth, and find out how soda taxes can play a part in addressing the diabetes crisis.

CUESA: In a nutshell, what is Measure HH, aka the Oakland Soda Tax?

Diane Woloshin: This is a one-cent-per-ounce tax on the distributors of sugar-sweetened beverages. It is modeled after the successful measure that passed in Berkeley, where we’ve seen that people are drinking less sugary drinks and are choosing more healthy beverages. We expect to raise $6 to $8 million in revenue from the tax, which will be used for health education programs. In Berkeley, they have used the money for school-based garden and nutrition programs, Healthy Black Families, YMCA afterschool programs, and diabetes prevention and education.

Can you describe the need for a soda tax, in terms of research you’ve done about how sugary beverages impact Oakland communities?

This measure was put on the ballot by public health experts. We went to our elected officials after looking at the stats. We know that one out of two African American and Latino children are projected to get diabetes in their lifetime. In Alameda County right now, 47% of residents are diabetic or prediabetic. Diabetes has become the new norm. This is an epidemic that we really need to turn the tide on. The soda tax is a commonsense public policy that we’ve seen work in Mexico and in Berkeley, and we said, “We need to do this in Oakland.”

How is the Oakland measure similar or different from the Berkeley measure?

It’s modeled very similarly in that the tax revenue goes to a general fund, and there’s a community advisory board that makes decisions about where the funding should go. It’s a little different in that Berkeley has a panel of experts, and Oakland’s will be a community advisory board with medical, dental, and public health experts, as well as Oakland Unified School District parents and residents from the neighborhoods that are most impacted by the negative consequences of sugary drinks. It’s going to be a public process, with the advisory board reporting annually to the city council in a public forum to follow up on whether the City Council used the funds as recommended and if the funded programs were effective. Accountability is built in.

The No on HH campaign has come out with some pretty powerful ads that feature local grocery businesses owners talking about this measure as a “grocery tax” that hurts small businesses and consumers. Can you talk about what’s actually behind these ads, and what the Yes campaign is up against?

The No campaign is funded by the soda industry, which has spent about $13 million to date in television ads. This is the most money ever spent on a local measure in Oakland’s history. The sad thing is they’re completely misframing the issue and telling lies. This is not a “grocery tax.” It is a tax on the distributors of sugary drinks, which are some of the wealthiest corporations that make billions of dollars in profits every year by target-marketing youth, specifically youth in low-income communities of color. There are health effects from their products that they’re not taking responsibility for, and we as taxpayers are picking up the tab—not to mention the human costs of diabetes. The beverage industry’s campaign is using minority small business owners in their ads. Already a few of those businesses have recanted, saying that they were misled and wishing they had never been part of the campaign.

In preliminary studies of Berkeley’s soda tax, they’ve reviewed millions of grocery transactions and found they had no effect on grocery store owners’ bottom lines, and that people are drinking fewer sugary drinks and selecting more healthy drinks. It debunks the beverage industry’s concept that grocers are going to be put out of business. 

How do you compete with the beverage industry?

The soda industry has an open checkbook, so we cannot compete dollar for dollar. We are running a grassroots campaign. We’re phone banking, canvassing, working with community organizations, putting up lawn signs. We have had some assistance of late from foundations that are investing in public health policies, to help level the playing field, but you really can’t compete with corporate dollars.

If you look at who supports Measure HH, you’ll see it’s all the elected officials and health organizations: the American Heart Association, the American Diabetes Association, the California Dental Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Health Department, the League of Women Voters. Do you believe all of those distinguished organizations, or do you believe the American Beverage Association?

How does public education fit into this campaign, in terms of changing views about sugary drinks?

Sugary drinks are the number one source of added sugar in the American diet. They’re toxic. Our bodies process sugary drinks differently than they do other sugary foods. The campaign itself is a public education effort, in terms of getting people to talk about the amount of sugar in these drinks and the health consequences. When we’re doing community outreach, people have aha moments all the time.

The most important way to expand public awareness is to pass this measure. It will invest $6 to $8 million in community education, which is so important for changing the community norm. In order to do that, you need funding, and the way to get that is to pass Measure HH.

“Canzilla” video still courtesy of The Bigger Picture.