Public Comment

Remove Your Soda Tax Goggles: Berkeley is not Mike Bloomberg’s Sugar Baby

Kathryn Stepanski
Friday October 31, 2014 - 11:15:00 AM

In a world where famine exists and children die daily from starvation I question anyone on this planet who supports taxing distributors of non-alcoholic beverages. While some arrogant individuals in Berkeley proclaim a war on random beverages with sugar in them, I bet they would love a pantry stocked with organic juice and green tea if a huge earthquake struck our town. Michael Bloomberg is one of the funders of Measure D as some sort of vendetta because his soda initiatives failed in NYC. The “soda tax” in Berkeley or Measure D, fails to take a realistic view of reality. First, if it did cut down on people’s consumption of drinks containing sugar then there would be less recycling for the Ecology Center to collect for its “green jobs” revenue. Ecology Center would lose money, the people who collect cans and bottles for their livelihoods would lose money under Measure D. Measure D does not encourage healthy eating and puts people at risk for mental health crises and eating disorders. 

Measure D began, as most political movements in Berkeley begin, as an outcry. Activists wanted to rally behind children and prevent obesity and diabetes. A good intention went awry as the “soda tax” proponents forgot about public health and instead morphed the legislation into a patch job to stop an impending local deficit for a mismanaged budget. Measure D’s per ounce tax on random sweetened beverages, would place generated tax money in a general fund and not any health related program. The destination of “soda tax” funds is ultimately unknown, determined by a capricious city council. 

While Berkeley residents espouse equality for all kinds of people and lifestyles, the “soda tax” fails to demonstrate respect for all cultures and people. Instead, the tax judges and punishes stores and stigmatizes consumers. Rather than allowing merchants and the public to make their own decisions about nourishing their bodies, Measure D scolds stores and people who want specific meal items like an organic sweetened green tea, and a tax would not stop people from buying drinks that contain sugar. 

Food and beverage taxes, which their advocates claim to make strives for public health, do not modify consumer demand. Alcohol or tobacco taxes do not stop people from consuming those, actually harmful, products. The same phenomena is likely to occur with Berkeley’s Measure D “Soda Tax” initiative. People who already consume sweetened beverages, which is the majority of citizens, will continue to purchase those beverages. People will continue to buy organic juice and cane sugar pop, which after all is how Measure D generates revenue for the general fund. 

Berkeley’s soda tax punishes and stigmatizes the people it claims to assist. Research studies show that people who struggle with obesity have an increased likelihood for psychiatric issues. This is the group of people Measure D advocates think they will help, when in actuality that is the group that suffers the most from any food or beverage tax. A sweetened drink tax could stigmatize children, teens, and adults who continue to consume a taxed coconut water or organic lemonade. Under a beverage or food tax people could be scrutinized by the community in supermarket check out lines and throughout the city for what they choose to place in their bodies. There is plenty of pressure for people to have their weight fall into a standardized chart. Food and soda taxes center around conformity, which especially hurts girls. 

People who suffer from eating disorders often have anxiety about others watching them eat. I knew two beautiful girls who lost their lives to food battles. Both of the girls were nervous about other people watching them eat and could not eat lunch around others at school. Food and beverage taxes have the potential to cause people embarrassment about their eating habits and lead them to cut out certain beneficial foods and drinks that they would normally consume. A lower caloric consumption is part of the pathway to an anorexia diagnosis. On the other end of the spectrum, a person could become guilty about drinking a taxed beverage, like an organic lemonade, and begin drinking that lemonade in private away from peers and neighbors. Closeted eating is associated with bulimia as it can turn into a binge to satiate the desire for these stigmatized meal items. The “soda tax” ignores the cultural significance and health role of sweet liquids. 

Juice is a staple. Juicers are great although in a pinch, in a group, on the go, and in an emergency a bottled beverage has huge benefits. Measure D attempts to place a tax on any juice that is not 100% juice. Anyone who has ever donated blood or stayed overnight in a hospital has been offered fruit juice. For someone recovering from a flu, a ginger ale or lemonade might be the only sugar the stomach can absorb. As a person’s unique biochemistry fluctuates in response to illness, environmental factors, stress, pregnancy cravings, that person ought to have the freedom to quench her thirst. 

It is not the government’s place or a group of perfectionists’ duty to shake grocers down for more tax money on the food and drink items they sell. Berkeley needs to stand back and be grateful that we even have stores, stores with fully stocked shelves. The proposed and unconstitutional beverage taxes in Berkeley, San Francisco and New York are signs of the affluent who have lost sight of a fight worth fighting. The group think mentality affiliated with the “soda tax” movement jeopardizes our democracy and first amendment freedoms. 

Kathryn Stepanski is a writer. Her last name was created by a government employee at Ellis Island when her great-great grandfather arrived from Poland. Her ancestral grandparents voyaged to America on the Mayflower in pursuit of happiness.