As the American Beverage Association (the trade group for Big Soda companies) was pouring more than $10 million into its campaign to defeat soda tax initiatives in Berkeley and San Francisco, a spokesman dismissed the campaigns’ chances for success. After Berkeley became the first city in the nation to pass a soda tax—giving it a 75 percent “yes” vote—the spokesman changed his tune and ridiculed Berkeley as an “anomaly.”
Prevention Institute’s Larry Cohen noted in a piece in Huffington Post published yesterday,
The victory in Berkeley, accompanied by the majority vote in San Francisco (which, unfortunately, needed a two-thirds majority to pass), is a tipping point for change. I've seen it in every community policy initiative I've been involved in. Once norms change begins it's inexorable. Many times legislators are just waiting for someone else to be first, so I see Berkeley as a trendsetter… inspiring advocates across the country and building the national momentum—it's something we've seen with many movements to create policy change, whether it's tobacco, seatbelt laws or making infrastructure changes that enable people in wheelchairs to cross city streets.
Indeed, Berkeley was among the first cities to put curb cuts in sidewalks to accommodate people in wheelchairs and to restrict smoking in public places. Larry spent many years building the effort to limit public smoking and helped draft the first multi-city no-smoking measures. For him, the parallels between previous public health efforts, including the fight against big tobacco, and the soda effort now are striking, as he noted in the Huffington article,
As one city after another took steps to limit smoking and protect people’s health, people’s views around the acceptability of cigarettes and public smoking shifted dramatically. Norms changed. Big Tobacco, for all its money and political influence, was unable to stop the inexorable push for policy change demanded by people no longer willing to put their health at risk.
Now, diabetes and other diet-related chronic diseases have become huge and expensive public health problems—and the link to sugar-sweetened beverages has become crystal-clear. And again, public health advocates are starting to gain traction as they push for policy changes that discourage consumption.
What happened in Berkeley won’t stay in Berkeley. By the next election we will see many more ballot initiatives to reduce soda consumption and enhance prevention. Advocates in San Francisco are certain to come back with another effort. Advocates in Vermont are pressing for statewide legislation to tax soda and use the revenue for health and nutrition initiatives.
In time, these local policy decisions will bubble up to the state and national level. The effort to discourage unhealthy food and beverages is just beginning. Berkeley can be proud being on the right side of history.