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Soda tax up for vote in Calif.

| Wednesday, July 9, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

WASHINGTON — If two of the most progressive cities don't pass a tax on sugary drinks, will the idea fizzle out?

Sugary drinks have been under fire for years, with many blaming them for rising rates of obesity and chronic diseases. Yet efforts to curb consumption by imposing taxes and other measures have failed, in part because the beverage industry has spent millions to defeat the efforts.

Now, the question of whether a bottle of Dr Pepper with 64 grams of sugar should be treated like a pack of cigarettes is being considered in San Francisco and Berkeley, with the two California cities aiming to become the country's first to pass per-ounce taxes on sugary drinks.

The stakes are high, especially given the Bay Area's reputation for liberal politics. If approved, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and other companies fear it could galvanize health advocates elsewhere. If defeated, the idea of a soda tax could be dead.

“The industry is really motivated to beat us here,” said Larry Tramutola, the political consultant handling the campaign in support of the tax in Berkeley. “If they can beat us in San Francisco and Berkeley, nobody is going to take them on.”

The odds aren't in favor of taxes. Since 2009, about 30 special taxes on sugary drinks have been introduced across the country. Few have gained traction, and none has prevailed. Chris Gindlesperger, a spokesman for the American Beverage Association, the lobbying group for Coke and Pepsi, said the failures show people don't support the idea.

Others say the industry uses unfair tactics to defeat measures, such as setting up groups with names like “Citizens Against Beverage Taxes,” which sound like they are community-driven but aren't. They are nevertheless influential in shaping people's attitudes.

In San Francisco and Berkeley, supporters of the tax say they're better organized to battle such tactics. They're hitting the streets to educate voters and plan to run TV ads, work phone banks and mail fliers.

“In other places, bless their hearts, but they were ill-prepared for what was coming at them,” said Maggie Muir, a consultant who was hired by San Francisco lawmakers to lead the political committee in support of the soda tax.

The San Francisco proposal is for a 2-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks and would not apply to milk or natural fruit juices without any added sugars. It needs a two-thirds vote to pass in the November election.

The tax in Berkeley is for a penny per ounce and needs a simple majority of the vote.

It's a high bar either way. Just two years ago, similar measures were soundly defeated in other California cities. Part of the reason is that even some who think drinking sugary drinks can be harmful don't believe taxing is the solution.

Barbara Cassidy, 50, fears a soda tax could lead to similar taxes on other foods.

“It's a slippery slope,” said Cassidy, a lifelong San Francisco resident.

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