Berkeley Grapples with Big Soda

Becky O'Malley
Friday October 03, 2014 - 11:32:00 AM

At heart I’m a contrarian. All it takes is for someone to say “everyone knows” and my impulse is to say “just a doggone minute, let’s check the facts.”

There seems not to be a single person I’ve ever known in Berkeley who does not avow the deeply felt belief that good citizens must vote yes on Measure D, the one that puts a tax on soda pop. Like my fellow Berkeleyans, I deeply distrust your average big corporation, and the transparent campaigning by the Pop Lords puts me off in a big way. Their propaganda clogs my mailbox. Their sweet-faced minions ring my doorbell and innocently repeat the lies they’ve been fed by their bosses.

Pro-D-ers compare Big Soda to Big Tobacco. I know from Big Tobacco, having done a Mother Jones story about fires caused by cigarettes in my investigative reporter youth which took me to the New York City headquarters of the tobacco industry, where a huge disgusting ashtray full of cigarette butts graced the reception desk. It took approximately 30 years for regulations to be passed to somewhat control that problem.

So my instinct is to say that if Big Soda say Down it must be Up for sure. But the refrain from Glitter and Be Gay, which Richard Wilbur wrote for Bernstein’s Candide, keeps running through my brain: “And yet…”. 

I also tangled with Big Pharma, doing a story for The Nation around 1980 about then-obscure research suggesting that the hormones being dished out to women weren’t all good all the time, despite contrary marketing with the imprimatur of colluding physicians. The story made a lot of drug company executives mad. (Nothing changes. See today's New York Times: Financial Ties Between Doctors and Health Care Firms Are Detailed

And yet… 

From the current Mayo Clinic website: “Use of hormone therapy changed abruptly when a large clinical trial found that the treatment actually posed more health risks than benefits …”. 

Abruptly?” Oh sure…it only took three or four decades for the news from the same epidemiologists I consulted for my 1980 story to trickle down to the practitioner level. 

What made me suspicious of Big Pharma and their allies in the first place was one of my all-time favorite books: For her own good: 150 years of the experts' advice to women, by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, published in 1978. The nostrums which well-meaning members of the medical profession tried to inflict on women are unbelievable. The authors are pioneer feminists, but the sad truth is that a lot of that sketchy medical advice has included men too. 

Yes, yes, I know that nowadays the best people think that “sugar is poison”, to quote one of the more restrained Yes on D people. Hey, I even believe that myself, because I’ve read a couple of books by science writer Gary Taubes and watched him on YouTube. He’s summarized a lot of convincing research in his two books, Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fats, Carbs, and the Controversial Science of Diet and Health and Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It (which is the easier-to-read version of the first one). And now Nina Teicholz (raised in Berkeley!) has a new book (plus YouTubed talks) which explores in even more detail the politics behind The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet.  

The problem is that from a public policy point of view you have to wonder if it’s a good idea to use the city’s taxing power to promote the latest theory from “the controversial science of diet and health”, no matter how tight it seems to be. And if it’s enacted as an ordinance through a ballot measure, it will take another citizens’ vote to repeal it if scientists change their minds. 

While Taubes and Teicholz make a very persuasive case that the consumption of refined sugar in soda pop is A Bad Thing, they also document decades of apparently erroneous theories about salt and fats which seem to have produced our current problems with excess consumption of simple carbohydrates, now blamed as the main villain in what we’re calling the obesity epidemic. “Bad” fat, now exonerated, was replaced with sugars in all sorts of foods, and here we are. 

So what if we’d decided, way back when, to tax, for example, salted nuts? In the first place, it now seems that salt restriction is only desirable for about a third of the population who have salt-influenced hypertension—some old ladies get in trouble by consuming too little salt in their zeal to comply with poor advice. And those nuts! Fatty, sure, high calories, yes, but they now seem to be good for you, not bad as your doctor might have told you five years ago (or maybe last week if he’s slow to get the memo). 

I’m also uncomfortable with taxing something that none of the proponents of the tax will admit to using: “Oh no, I never drink soft drinks, and Those People shouldn’t either.” 

Most likely These People indulge in the occasional bagel at Noah’s (white flour) or even a pumpkin spice latte at Peet’s or even godforbid a blueberry muffin or worse at Masse’s or Crixa or the Cheese Board. Is it equitable to tax the cheap thrills of low income citizens while letting fancier folk off the hook? 

My mother was from the generation of quasi-Southern women who started each day with what they called a Co-Cola and drank Cokes all day long thereafter. She kept a stash of Cokes in her Berkeley basement until the day she died—at almost 99 years old, lively until the end. Would it have been fair to tax her an extra quarter for every guilty can of Coke, which apparently did her no harm at all? 

And can we really be sure that Measure D is a panacea (“a remedy for all ills or difficulties”) and not a tin fiddle? (A tin fiddle, for those unfamiliar with this grandmotherly expression, is a novel design that seems to the inventor to be a much more robust replacement for the dull old wooden kind, but sounds awful. Tin fiddles are bright ideas that just don’t pan out as expected.) 

No one is quite willing to claim that adding some cents to the wholesale price of a can of soda pop will guarantee to reduce consumption enough to cause a statistically significant reduction in the incidence of diabetes, or even in the incidence of obesity. Well, no, that might not be true—this city is unfortunately full of credulous true believers in all manner of specious health claims. I attribute this to the decline of conventional religious belief—some people just have to have something to believe in, some promise of salvation to which they cling. Others suffer from innumeracy, which is the really dangerous epidemic in this society. 

So, you ask, is the Berkeley Daily Planet endorsing Measure D or not? 

Will I vote for it myself? Probably not. Will I vote against it? Probably not. 

Should you vote for it? You’ll have to make up your own mind about that one.