The Second Big Battle against the soda industry ended on last month’s election day, November 4, with one win for the industry—and a big loss. First, the loss: In Berkeley, California, 75 percent of voters said yes to a new penny-an-ounce tax on sugary beverages. And then there was the win: just across the Bay, in San Francisco, a similar vote to enact a two-cents an ounce tax on sugary drinks lost because it could not garner the two-thirds of votes needed to pass (though it did get 55 percent of the vote).
Now I call this the “Second Big Battle” because it comes on the heels of failed efforts last year by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to pass a ban on sales of some sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces.
The Berkeley loss was greeted by some health advocates as a major victory or even a turning point in their battle against the industry. One of them, Jim Krieger, even called it’s a “breakthrough moment.” I am not so sure he is right. I think advocates may have overestimated this victory and may be in for a surprise in the coming months about how much opposition they, and not the soft drink industry, end up generating among the American public.
I feel this way because Berkeley has always been a unique place culturally, or perhaps I should better say, counter-culturally. Walk its streets today and it’s easy to feel like you’ve stepped back in time to the 1960’s—yes, it still even has hippies. It’s not hard to see why they embraced a measure that is so anti- business.
But much of the country is not like that. They dislike big government telling them what to do even more than they might a big corporation. And restrict their freedom of choice and you have crossed the line. Case in point was the outcry that erupted in Westminster, Mass. in November when the local Board of Health held a hearing over a proposal to ban the sale of tobacco products. A public hearing had to be shut down after just 20 minutes because the crowd was so infuriated by the possibility of the government restricting their personal choice—and we’re talking tobacco here.
In New York City, the soda industry cloaked its campaign against the sugary drinks ban behind a group that played off those anti-government sentiments. But New Yorkers, ever a cynical bunch, didn’t quite go along with it. But I have a feeling the industry won’t even have to go to that length in other parts of the country—like Westminster, Mass.—to defeat any proposals by government getting between them and their choice of what to drink.