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Outside of Mi Carnal Market, Abdul Talev hangs a "Vote No" sign.

Oakland grocers raise concerns about soda tax Measure HH

on September 15, 2016

Thirty-five years ago, Abdul Talev’s grandfather opened a small grocery store in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland. Today, with the family business in his care, Talev is worried a new soda tax will cause him to lose business, or even worse, force him to close his doors.

 The controversial tax Talev is referring to is Measure HH on Oakland’s November ballot. Measure HH would impose a one cent per ounce tax on the distribution of sodas and other sugary beverages. If voters approve the tax, the revenue stream could raise up to $12 million, which would be applied directly to the city’s general fund.

“The legislators are essentially saying, I want to help you by taxing you,” Talev said. “That just doesn’t make any sense. Taxing people is not the solution, educating people is the solution.”

Supporters and critics of Measure HH are debating whether the tax will fall only on soda distributors, or if it will affect store owners and their customers by forcing them to raise prices on other groceries to compensate for the tax.

According to Diane Woloshin, director of the Coalition for Healthy Oakland Children, a group that supports policies and efforts that improve children’s health, the tax will only be on the distributors of sugary beverages, because cities cannot directly tax each bottle of soda sold, only the state can. When asked about how the city will prevent grocery stores from spreading the cost to other items such as bread or cheese, Woloshin said, “Our experience is that that is not happening in Berkeley,” a city that has had a similar tax since 2014.

For Talev’s store, Mi Carnal Market, it’s about staying afloat in an expensive city. In his own market, Talev said it wouldn’t be smart to raise the price of one item. He believes he would be forced to spread the cost to other items in his store, such as meat and produce. “I just can’t understand why the leaders are turning a blind eye to what this really is,” Talev said. “Distributors aren’t going to just absorb this tax, so it will be passed on to grocery stores and markets and eventually passed on to the consumers.”

He also said raising the price of one item would cause people to leave Oakland and shop at larger chain stores in neighboring cities like San Leandro, fewer than 10 miles from his store. “We are already struggling to keep people in our neighborhood and in our stores because of public safety issues. As soon as it’s dark, it’s dead here,” Talev said. “This tax just gives people an extra boost to leave our neighborhood.”

Talev is not the only small business owner worried about the effects of another tax. More than 300 Oakland businesses have agreed to sign a petition to help the No Oakland Grocery Tax campaign’s efforts to defeat the tax. The campaign argues that the tax will cause grocery store owners to make up the extra cost by raising the prices of groceries throughout their store such as bread, cheese and milk.

“These business owners are upset because at a time when living in the Bay Area is at all time high, it’s going to get even tougher,” said Joe Arellano, spokesperson for the No Oakland Grocery Tax Campaign. “They are going to have to figure out how to make up that cost and are forced to raise prices.”

Officials on the Oakland City Council have said the funds raised will be allocated to the city’s general fund for spending on health education in the community and schools. But Arellano said that is a part of the measure that his campaign is concerned about. “When we talk to people, the most eye-opening thing they learn is that this money is directly funneled into Oakland’s general fund,” Arellano said. “They make it seem like this is going to be used for education about health issues but it could be used to fix roads, for paying police officers, anything.”

But Oakland also has a campaign dedicated to getting Measure HH passed, called Oakland v. Big Soda. Volunteers and campaign staff gathered on Saturday morning for the unveiling of the campaign’s new headquarters near Rockridge BART and to talk to residents about the measure. Volunteers clad in “Sugar is Killing Us” t-shirts received training before heading out to Oakland neighborhoods to convince residents to vote “Yes” on the measure.

The campaign headquarters resembles an office building from the outside, but near the front door, large campaign posters greet volunteers. “You wouldn’t eat 22 packs of sugar, why are you drinking them?” asks a poster on the wall. In the main room, a row of drinks lines a table with a plastic bag of sugar in front of each drink to show how much sugar each bottle contains.

Volunteers at the campaign said that sugary drinks are the number one source for added sugar in the average American’s diet and lead to an increased risk of obesity and chronic diseases. Campaign fliers that the group was set out to distribute stated that half of all African American and Latino children will develop Type II diabetes in their lifetime.

Oakland City Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan (at-large) attended the event to encourage supporters and said that the soda tax is not going to be used as a grocery tax. “If this is a tax on groceries, why aren’t the milk companies fighting it?” Kaplan asked, referring to the money the American Beverage Association (ABA) has spent to fight the tax. The ABA is an industry trade association that represents the non-alcoholic beverage industry, such as PepsiCo and Coca-Cola.  The association disclosed spending $600,000 for the first six months of 2016.

According to a study by students at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health published in August in The American Journal of Public Health, consumption of sugary beverages has seen a 21 percent drop in Berkeley since the implementation of the tax in March, 2015. The study also found that Berkeley residents reported drinking 63 percent more water and were more likely to choose water over soda.

Talev said the health of children is a valid concern. “People think that being opposed to this tax means I’m promoting people to drink these drinks,” Talev said. “But I’m opposite of that. I want people to make healthy choices but on their own. We can’t force our communities to make healthy choices.”

Talev said that the Oakland City Council should have thought about who the tax would affect before voting to put the measure on the ballot. “I believe if they had took time and actually come out to visit small businesses, we could have avoided all of this,” Talev said. “No one asked small businesses what we thought about this and it’s going to impact us the most.”


  1. sam r sheppare on September 16, 2016 at 4:39 pm

    obvious play/ploy by the sugar industry ( see recent decades of corporate lying to the public…to again deceive and play the public for profit vs real health…..

  2. Fred Werner on September 17, 2016 at 9:32 am

    Measure HH sets up the same kind of soda tax in Oakland that has already worked really well in Berkeley. It says “$ for general fund” because otherwise, state law requires a 2/3 supermajority to pass (SF tried this in 2014, and it failed even though 56% voted “yes”). Just like in Berkeley, HH creates a special Advisory Board to make sure the $ is really spent on health programs, NOT anything else. In it’s first year, Berkeley already spent all $1.5m on health, as promised. We’ll have over $9m for health programs in Oakland

  3. Fred Werner on September 17, 2016 at 9:38 am

    Also, a UC Berkeley study of low income families in Berkeley, found that in the 1st year of the soda tax, they drank 21% less soda and 60% more water. One reason they said was that all of the hype around the soda tax got people realizing how much sugar is in soda, and how bad for them it was. So the soda tax campaign itself WAS educating people! If the companies funding the “No on HH” campaign actually believed that “educating people is the solution”, they’d be doing major ad campaigns to let people know how bad sugar is for us, and to encourage us to drink less soda. But instead, they spend $ millions trying to convince esp. low income families to buy even MORE soda, energy drinks, etc.

  4. Fred Werner on September 17, 2016 at 9:39 am

    The UC-Berkeley study also found that only 2% of low income families bought soda outside of Berkeley instead. So anyone who says, “people are going to leave our neighborhood” to buy groceries elsewhere probably doesn’t know that this just doesn’t happen in places that already have the soda tax.

  5. Len Raphale on September 18, 2016 at 2:33 pm

    Supporting Measure HH because the soda manufacturers have put big money into defeating it with deceptive ads, is not a good reason to support it.

    It never was like the direct sin tax on alcoholic beverages or the health tax on tobacco products. It’s an indirect tax on distributors which they can optionally absorb or tack on to raise price of the beverages.

    But still I went along with the underlying assumption that poor people are too stupid and too addicted to soda to cut back without the stick of raising the cost of those drinks which unquetionably hate health.

    But then I mentioned the Oakland proposed tax opt family members in Brooklyn. They told me that ex Mayor Bloomberg tried to get that in NYC but it never made it to the ballot because so many residents saw it as a classist move by a mayor that increasing numbers of voters saw as an arrogant elitist.

    This is from NY’ers who dont’ object to Bloomberg’s anti gun funding efforts.

    Recently announced Bloomberg is spending 300k of his money to support HH.

    I’m not saying one should oppose HH because Bloomberg is supporting it, but that neutralizes supporting HH because of the soda companies who support it. It freed me up to decide that I don’t respect the underlying premise that poor people are too dumb to do what huge numbers of Americans have done in recent years: drastically cut consumption of soda.

    That’s why I’ve decided to vote No on HH.

  6. Fred Werner on September 29, 2016 at 10:27 pm

    Berkeley’s soda tax is working really well, and Measure HH will do the same for us. A survey of low income families in Berkeley found that last year they bought 21% less soda than the year before, and only 2% of them shopped for soda outside of Berkeley, even though it’s smaller than Oakland, and would’ve been even easier for them to shop here or in Emeryville, Albany, etc. Other survey found that grocers did raise the prices of sodas and only sodas. Not a single grocer raised prices on non-beverages, and not a single grocer went out of business. Oh, and the city council already spent 100% of the $1.5 million dollars on health and education programs, mostly for low income kids (like Berkeley Youth Alternatives). It’ll be $9 million for us here in Oakland. Let’s not miss this opportunity to reap those benefits here too. Less soda = less diabetes and less other health problems and costs. Soda tax = more $ to deal with health problems here.

  7. […] mailer shows an image of a computer displaying a story we published on September 15, 2016, which profiled an Oakland grocer offering his thoughts on the ballot […]

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