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Berkeley residents to vote on soda tax in November

A 64-ounce drink is displayed alongside other soft drink cup sizes at a news conference at City Hall in New York, May 31, 2012.
CREDIT: REUTERS/ANDREW BURTON
A 64-ounce drink is displayed alongside other soft drink cup sizes at a news conference at City Hall in New York, May 31, 2012. CREDIT: REUTERS/ANDREW BURTON

By Jennifer Chaussee

BERKELEY Calif. (Reuters) - A California college town known for its liberal activism will vote in November on whether to place a penny-per-ounce tax on sugary beverages, touching off the latest obesity-fighting campaign in the United States.

Berkeley City Council voted unanimously to add the measure in the form of a referendum on the city's ballot, drawing cheers of support from residents and health advocates, and vows to fight from the U.S. food and beverage industry.

"When we pass this measure in November, Berkeley will be the first in the country where such a measure has been passed," said Vicki Alexander, a co-chairwoman of a local campaign to put the measure on the ballot. "We are very excited to see that day happen."

Public health advocates across the country have clamored for ways to reduce consumption of sugary drinks and junk food, but lawmakers and voters have generally opposed enacting taxes or other regulations.

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plan to limit the sale of large sugary drinks was rejected on June 26 by the state's highest court.

A California bill to require sugary soft drinks to carry labels warning of obesity, diabetes and tooth decay died in the California Legislature on June 17.

Two California cities, Richmond and El Monte, failed two years ago in their attempts to become the first in the country to impose taxes of a penny per ounce on businesses that sell sugary drinks.

Revenues from Berkeley's tax, if it passes, would go toward the city's general fund.

"It's disingenuous because there's nothing in this measure that's going to education. This goes right into the general account. It's a money grab," said Ted Mundorff, CEO of Landmark Theatres, which has movie theaters in Berkeley. 

A Berkeley vending machine executive said her company would be forced to pass the tax on to consumers in order to stay in business.

A city survey of 500 likely voters showed majority support for the tax in April.

(Reporting by Jennifer Chaussee in Berkeley, California; Writing by Eric M. Johnson; Editing by Toby Chopra)

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