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Contra Costa Times - May 22, 2015
Barnidge: If Berkeley shoppers don't have to pay the soda tax, does it really exist?
When Berkeley officials summoned the media last week to bask in the success of the city's new 1-cent-per-ounce soda tax -- $116,000 collected in the first month -- Councilman Laurie Capitelli summed up the essence of the program with a touch of irony.
"What we really want to do, in 10 years," he said, "is collect no (soda) tax."
Translation: By dramatically increasing the costs at the register -- a $2 two-liter bottle of Coke would cost 68 cents more, or a 34 percent price hike -- the city hopes to sour shoppers on purchasing calorie-laden beverages that contribute to obesity and diabetes.
That assumes, of course, that the tax is passed on to customers, who then turn their backs on sugar-sweetened drinks. That's not what's happening in Berkeley, from what I've seen.
Proponents of this measure have sold artificial price hikes as a way of curbing bad nutritional choices. In fact, a UC San Francisco study in 2012 concluded that if a soda tax were implemented nationwide, "a penny-per-ounce tax on sweetened beverages would prevent nearly 100,000 cases of heart disease, 8,000 strokes and 26,000 deaths over the next decade."
When I visited Berkeley last week to go soda shopping -- hey, it was a slow day -- I discovered that a CVS store on Shattuck Avenue sold a 1.5-liter bottle of Pepsi-Cola for the same price as a CVS in Concord, which has no soda tax. In both cases, the base price was 99 cents, the deposit 10 cents and sales tax 10 cents, for a total of $1.19.
When I asked a clerk why the extra fee wasn't added to the cost, she looked at me as if I had a tattoo on my forehead.
Farther down Shattuck Avenue, I repeated the experiment at a Safeway store. Same result: 99 cents for the soda, 10 cents deposit, 10 cents sales tax. A Concord Safeway charged exactly the same. How can a disincentive work, if customers don't have to pay it?
Berkeley CVS store Manager Danny Rogers said his store is simply absorbing the added cost. "We're just taking on the tax and paying it," he said. "We're still looking into should-we, should-we-not (charge customers)."
A woman who identified herself on the phone as the Berkeley Safeway store manager (she wouldn't give her name) sounded mystified by the question. "I'll have to look into that," she said.
The city has no authority to force merchants to pass along the first-in-the-nation tax. The way the program is structured, distributors pay a fee based on the quantity of product delivered; that charge is passed on to stores, which figure out how to afford it.
Maybe CVS increases the cost of sunscreen. Maybe Safeway charges more for sour cream. Just because it's called a soda tax doesn't mean that's where the revenues to pay it are coming from. Maybe it's really a sunscreen-sour cream tax.
If Capitelli was surprised by my finding, he hid it well. He said he'd hoped that retailers would pass along the fee, raise prices and curb consumption, but that decision rested with each store. Maybe such a practice will yet evolve.
"I hope that price discourages people from buying," he said, "but equally important is the opportunity to take the revenue we get from this and educate people as to the risk they're taking consuming sugar-sweetened beverages.
"What you're looking at now is a snapshot. We have yet to really see full implementation. I'll be surprised if most retailers don't pass the cost on."
In the meantime, if you're out of Pepsi, feel free to shop Berkeley stores: They're selling it at a good price.
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