Beat it

Beat it

Guest Commentary: Taking on Big Soda


By Larry Tramutola

Something HISTORIC happened on Tuesday, November 4, 2014 in Berkeley, California.  For the first time EVER, a community passed a measure taxing unhealthy sugary drinks.
The campaign, dubbed “Berkeley vs. Big Soda,” received the support of over 76% of voters and  may well mark the beginning of a national movement to tax sugary drinks. Supporters of the “soda tax” claimed this effort is similar to efforts to tax cigarettes which has led to a reduction in smoking.
The significance of the passage of this measure has been noted in the NY Times, the Washington Post, LA Times, SF Chronicle, NPR, Politico, and even the London Guardian.
The campaign measure was managed by TRAMUTOLA a California-based political consulting firm that has gained a reputation for winning races many think are unwinnable and passing over 300 tax measures throughout California.
Many thought this campaign would be impossible. At least 30 other soda tax measures around the country have failed, and the beverage industry indicated they would leave no stone unturned in a multi-million dollar campaign to defeat the measure.
So how was it done?
First, the campaign built a broad coalition of health experts and community leaders who were educated about the research linking consumption of sugary drinks with diabetes and obesity among children.
Second, the campaign leaders made a decision to place the measure on the ballot as a general tax, which required a simple majority (50%+1 voter support) to pass.
Third, to counter the million dollar campaign blitz of the beverage industry (who eventually spent over $2.4 Million in their losing effort) an organizing staff was recruited and an aggressive door-to-door campaign, made up of local volunteers was conducted in every Berkeley neighborhood.
Learning from previous failed elections, the Yes campaign got every elected official in Berkeley and every candidate for office, from school board to city council, to support the measure. The measure also had the backing of the League of Women Voters and the Berkeley chapter of the NAACP. Despite being outspent, the organizing team focused on people likely to vote and made sure voters knew that the beverage industry was behind the no campaign.
Eventually, the campaign in Berkeley caught the attention of health advocates around the country, and in the last two weeks of the campaign, the American Heart Association, Michael Bloomberg, former Mayor of New York, and others joined the Yes campaign.
Today the PR consultants from the the soda industry are saying that: “Berkeley is unlike the rest of the country. It doesn’t look like mainstream America. It’s a liberal bastion with a mere 80,000 voters.”
The truth is that Berkeley has a tradition of being first: the first to ban smoking in the work place; the first to provide leadership on rights for disabled citizens; the first to speak out against apartheid. Campaign leaders are convinced that Berkeley will also be known as the first of many cities to tackle childhood obesity and diabetes by taxing sugary drinks.
Who’s next?