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Soda Taxes Top Bay Area’s Local Ballot Agendas

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - There's nothing sweet about the soda tax fight bubbling in San Francisco and Berkeley.

Voters on Tuesday will decide whether either Bay Area city will become the first place in the nation to tax sugary drinks.

The debate over a 2 cent per ounce tax in San Francisco and a 1 cent per ounce in Berkeley has backers decrying the corporate power of Big Soda, and soda defenders claiming a tax would hurt businesses and put an undue burden on the poor.

The beverage industry has poured serious resources into campaign, spending $10.5 million to defeat the Bay Area measures, according to the Los Angeles Times.

San Francisco's Proposition E would be a special tax, with revenue going to children's health and nutrition programs. It requires a two-thirds majority for of approval.

Berkeley's Measure D would be a general tax that requires a simple majority vote.

Sugar scrutinizers say a tax on sweet beverages - including some sports drinks such as Gatorade - will help curb the overconsumption that contributes to chronic diseases.

"I think the biggest worry right now is this diabetes epidemic, and that's directly linked to sugar-sweetened beverage consumption," said Jeff Ritterman, vice president of the board of the San Francisco Bay Chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Ritterman lists a horror-show list of other serious diseases linked to sugar consumption: heart attacks, strokes, dementia, decreased sperm mobility, cancer.

It's a fight the doctors had a stake in for a while. Ritterman was a Richmond councilman involved in a campaign for a soda tax in that city two years ago. That measure was struck down by a 2-1 margin, according to the San Jose Mercury News.

As in Richmond, soda defenders - led by the beverage industry - are striking back, questioning the need for such measures.

"San Francisco has a huge budget," said Roger Salazar, spokesman for campaigns against the measures in San Francisco and Berkeley. "It can already afford these types of programs. There's no need to pick the pockets of poor people."

A 12-pack of soda would cost nearly $3 more, No on Prop E proponents say.

Salazar, a media relations consultant who represents the American Beverage Association, adds: "Both these cities have much bigger priorities than deciding what people should eat or drink."

He points to a study commissioned by the No on Prop. E campaign that said San Francisco businesses would lose $63 million in beverage sales and 1,000 jobs could be lost.

If San Francisco or Berkeley passes a soda tax measure, they will be following the footsteps of Mexico, which created an 8 cent per liter tax on sugary drinks in January.

About 70 percent of adults in Mexico are overweight, according to July 2013 reports proclaiming that the country had surpassed the United States as the world's fattest nation.

Ritterman points to early successes in Mexico, including a significant decrease in soda consumption and an increase in water consumption in the first three months of this year compared to last year.

But Salazar cites an Oct. 22 Wall Street Journal that says Mexico's biggest soft drink bottler reported a 0.3 percent sales by volume drop, compared to a 6.4 percent decrease in the first half of the year.

Coca-Cola Femsa says the soda tax effect is waning, according to the Journal.

"Look, there's no question that it's important for people to watch what they eat [and] it's important to educate people on proper nutrition and healthy lifestyles," Salazar said. "Taxing people, especially lower income people, isn't the right way to do it."

(Editor's Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed a study on the soda tax to the California Legislative Analysist's Office. The study was conducted by a former director of the California Legislative Analyst's Office, but commissioned by the No on Prop E campaign.)

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