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California city to consider taxing soda to combat obesity

By Jennifer Chaussee

(Reuters) - An effort to combat obesity by placing an extra tax on sugary drinks was proposed by the California city of Berkeley on Tuesday, bringing a proposal similar to others that have failed in cities across the U.S. one step closer to the November ballot.

Officials in the liberal college town on Tuesday evening set July 1 for a vote on whether to include such a measure on the citywide ballot after a survey of 500 likely voters showed majority support.

"Our residents are highly educated on this issue and highly supportive of any measure that can help fight child onset diabetes and other tragic, preventable and costly diet-related illnesses," said Martin Bourque, who directs the Berkeley Ecology Center, which has campaigned to get the soda tax measure on this autumn's ballot.

A similar measure is under consideration in nearby San Francisco.

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.

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. A similar measure failed in the California Legislature last year.

In late May, lawmakers in Illinois also rejected a measure that would have taxed soda, and an effort by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to ban the largest sugary drink sizes was overturned by a state judge.

A bill to put warning labels on sugary drinks passed the California state Senate on May 29.

The Berkeley measure would require support from two-thirds of voters to pass. City council members are considering drafting the initiative to funnel revenue from the tax either into the city's general fund or into local health programs. That aspect was not discussed at the council meeting on Tuesday.

Efforts to curtail consumption of sugary drinks through taxes and other efforts have met fierce resistance from the U.S. food and beverage industry.

"Another tax is the last thing that Berkeley businesses and families need," said Roger Salazar, a spokesman for CalBev, which represents beverage companies throughout the state. 

(Reporting by Jennifer Chaussee in Berkeley, Calif., Editing by Sharon Bernstein and Peter Cooney)

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