Voters soured Tuesday on sweetened beverages, agreeing to add taxes to soft drinks and soda in Boulder, Colo., and three California cities.
In battles that saw millions of dollars spent on both sides, the cities became the first since Berkeley, Calif., pioneered a sugary drink tax in 2014. Advocates of the taxes argued that such drinks are unhealthy and could spur ailments such as diabetes.
Boulder added a 2-cent per ounce excise tax on distributors of sugary drinks such as soda, sports drinks and sweetened iced tea. The three Bay Area cities – San Francisco, Oakland and Albany, Calif. – each added a 1-cent per ounce excise tax.
The taxes are projected to generate $15 million in San Francisco, $3.8 million in Boulder and $223,000 in Albany, according to estimates by each city. In Oakland, the tax was projected to generate $6 million to $10 million per year, according to the Oakland Chamber of Commerce, which took a neutral stance on the proposal.
The campaigns were big-dollar affairs rivaling U.S. Senate races, with supporters of the San Francisco measure spending $9.2 million and opponents spending $20 million, according to the city's Ethics Commission.
In Oakland, supporters of the measure raised and spent $6.8 million through Oct. 22, according to city records. The American Beverage Association, an industry group representing the soft-drink industry, contributed $5.4 million through Oct. 22 to a group opposing the measure, with another $850,000 in bills accumulated by that point, according to city records.
In Boulder, the advocacy group Healthy Boulder Kids raised and spent $832,694 in support of the measure through Nov. 3, according to city records. Opponents spent $945,081 through Nov. 3 to defeat the measure, with the American Beverage Association contributing $954,496 to the cause, according to city records.
“We have won a major victory for the health of our community and all our children,” Angelique Espinoza, campaign manager of Healthy Boulder Kids, said in a statement. “'Big Soda' pulled out all the stops in its effort to prevent the tax from being passed, but Boulder stood up for our kids.”
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said the Berkeley measure generated nearly $2 million for health and nutrition programs. Several medical organizations, such as the American Heart Association and American Academy of Pediatrics, endorsed the Oakland measure.
“It’s time the beverage industries invest in Oakland’s communities and not profit off them,” Schaaf said in a statement.
Joe Arellano, spokesman for the No Grocery Tax group in the Bay Area that fought the initiatives, said the group respected the voting results. But he said the group remains concerned about the lack of restrictions on how cities can spend the money.
"Unfortunately, low-income and hardworking families are struggling in San Francisco, Oakland and Albany and already pay a disproportionate amount of their income on groceries," Arellano said. "It’s already too expensive to live in the Bay Area and this tax will make it even harder."
Voters overwhelmingly approved the local ballot measures. Albany voters supported their measure with nearly 71% of the vote. San Francisco voters gave theirs 62% of the vote. Oakland voters approved their measure with nearly 61% of the vote. And Boulder voters gave a 54% yes vote.
The American Beverage Association said it respected the decision of voters in the four cities.
“Our energy remains squarely focused on reducing the sugar consumed from beverages – engaging with prominent public health and community organizations to change behavior,” the group said in a statement. “We’re driving this change across America, including communities with the highest rates of obesity. It’s the hard work necessary for true and lasting change.”