Shawn Hubler

Who will take big gulp of soda cash?

An Assembly committee will consider a 2-cent per ounce soda tax on Tuesday.
An Assembly committee will consider a 2-cent per ounce soda tax on Tuesday. TNS

Say what you will about soda taxes. Call them a buzzkill, call them intrusive, call them anti-Big Gulp. On at least one count, you’ve gotta hand it to them.

They generate money. And not in a bad way. At least that’s how things are shaping up in Berkeley, which is so far the only U.S. city to have slipped a soda tax past the industry’s political muscle, and which is on track to generate a healthy $1.5 million or so for the general fund in its first year.

Later this month, the city will release final revenue data on the first full four quarters of the penny-per-ounce soda tax it passed in 2014. Those numbers are still being crunched, according to city officials, but based on the existing run rate, figures show the tax is averaging about $125,000 for the city each month.

That kind of money buys a lot of public health, and Assembly Health Committee, I’m looking at you as I say this. Today, which is to say, Tuesday, the committee is scheduled to take up the latest attempt at a statewide soda tax, Assembly Bill 2782.

If the bill passes, it will be a minor miracle, even with one of its co-authors, Assemblyman Jim Wood, a Healdsburg dentist, chairing the committee. State lawmakers have tried at least four times since 2010 to pass legislation taxing sugary drinks, only to be blocked by the tidal wave of campaign cash that is the beverage industry lobby.

Never mind that nearly half the state’s adults – an estimated 46 percent of adult Californians – have pre-diabetes. And never mind that about one in 10 Californians already suffer from the life-altering condition, which can lead, among other things, to blindness, amputation and death, and which has particularly ravaged black and Latino families.

The American Beverage Association spent $11.8 million on campaign contributions in the 2014 election. And in the last three months, proposed soda taxes in Watsonville and Davis have been derailed, even though some 2,000 signatures had been gathered in Watsonville, more than enough to qualify for the November allot, and even though Davis is among California’s most reliably liberal communities.

In both cases, the mere threat of a Big Soda fight was enough to give second thoughts to key backers. This, despite a Field Poll earlier this year showing an overwhelming majority of voters favor taxing sugary sodas.

So it will surprise no one if the usual contingent of sheepish lawmakers takes the usual sheepish walk on AB 2782, ensuring it won’t get out of committee. I plan to keep a special eye out for lawmakers from districts with high black and Latino populations, just to see how they arrange their faces, knowing that one out of two black and Latino kids will get Type 2 diabetes in their lifetime if this state doesn’t start addressing this issue.

But even without the sick children, Californians should note what those who walk away from AB 2782 will be walking away from. By conservative estimates, advocates project the 2-cent-per-ounce tax would raise about $2 billion.

The public could do a lot with that kind of money, too.

In Berkeley, the extra 12 cents on a can of Coke is being spent on Berkeley-style programs. So far, the city has earmarked about $900,000 of the new revenue for school based anti-obesity programs. And last week, a city commission sent recommendations to the city council for another $637,500 worth of community organization projects. (Healthy Black Families, the YMCA’s diabetes prevention program, something called “It’s Your Body – Don’t Hate, Hydrate!” at the Ecology Center.)

But soda tax money, like tobacco tax money, could fund any number of priorities for Californians, which is partly why other jurisdictions have picked up on the Berkeley measure.

“I’ve gotten calls from Philadelphia, Boulder, El Cerrito, Emeryville, San Francisco, Oakland,” Berkeley Councilman Laurie Capitelli told me Monday.

Some, such as San Francisco and Oakland, are aiming Berkeley-style measures for the November ballot, with the money aimed at public health programs. But others, such as Philadelphia, have more general plans; a proposed Philly tax, for instance, would fund universal prekindergarten with soda taxes.

AB 2782 would channel tax revenue into programs to fight diabetes, obesity and dental disease in California, putting about half the money into public health and another quarter of it into clean drinking water in schools. The rest would go to farm-to-fork and rural health programs.

If it were to pass, the bill would improve the health of a lot of Californians – at least for as long as we the keep chugging big 2-liter bottles of Sprite and Fanta. For what it’s worth, other Berkeley research shows that would probably not be forever: According to health officials studying the program, preliminary data showed an 8.5 percent drop in sugary beverage sales in the first six months of the tax, while sales of bottled water and other healthier drinks rose.

Say what you will about Berkeley. They may be a bunch of anti-Big Gulp, nanny-state buzzkills. But they do their homework when they pass a law for the greater good.