We Don't Know Yet If Soda Taxes Will Make Us Healthier

Voters in four U.S. cities will consider proposed soda taxes at the ballot box next month.
Voters in four U.S. cities will consider proposed soda taxes at the ballot box next month. The beverage industry is fighting the proposals with a multimillion-dollar push.
Voters in four U.S. cities will consider proposed soda taxes at the ballot box next month. The beverage industry is fighting the proposals with a multimillion-dollar push.
Credit: Scott McIntyre/Bloomberg via Getty Images

With the election less than two weeks away, Big Soda is preparing for battle.

The soda industry, led by the American Beverage Association trade group, is spending many millions of dollars in a carefully coordinated effort to defeat proposals in four U.S. cities to tax local sales of sugar-sweetened beverages.

Three of the cities where voters will consider the proposals on Nov. 8 — San Francisco, Oakland and Albany — are in California, while the fourth, Boulder, is in Colorado. The industry is spending about $19.3 million to fight the Bay Area proposals alone.

They may follow in the footsteps of cities like Berkeley, California, which passed its tax in 2014, and Philadelphia, which earlier this year introduced a tax that’s currently the subject of a lawsuit brought by the ABA.

As supporters of the soda taxes tell it, the beverage industry is fighting the new soda tax proposals so aggressively because it can sense proponents of such legislation gaining momentum.

Marion Nestle, a pro-soda-tax New York University nutrition professor and author of the book Soda Politics: Taking On Big Soda (And Winning) told The Huffington Post she believes the tipping point on the taxes has already been reached.

“This fight is a last act of desperation,” Nestle said by email. “The more they fight the taxes, the more people learn that sodas are best consumed in small amounts.”

If soda tax proponents succeed at the ballot box in all or most of the Nov. 8 votes, Barry Popkin, a nutrition professor at the University of North Carolina, believes more municipalities will soon follow. Cook County, Illinois, the nation’s second most populated county, already appears to be on the verge of proposing its own 1-cent-per-ounce soda tax.

“I think this is going to empower enormously the advocates,” said Popkin, who has researched the impact of soda taxes extensively. “I see a series of counties and maybe one state that will be the next generation.”

Supporters like Nestle and Popkin point to research showing that soda taxes in Berkeley and Mexico, which enacted a nationwide tax in 2014, resulted in reduced soda consumption, as evidence they could be effective.

The World Health Organization agrees. Earlier this month, WHO issued a report urging that the cost of sugar-sweetened beverages be increased at least 20 percent to curtail consumption and reduce obesity.

Opponents, however, say there are few signs the taxes will have any impact on the nation’s diet-related health challenges.

An ABA spokesman pointed to Popkin’s own research and a second study, conducted by the Mexican Institute of Technology’s Center for Economic Research, on the impact of the Mexican soda tax that the legislation had only a negligible impact on soda consumption over its first year in effect.

According to Popkin’s paper, the Mexican soda tax resulted in a reduction of soda consumption of just 11.6 fewer milliliters of soda — about 4.9 calories — per day. This was in line with the second study, which found a reduction of soda consumption equivalent to just 6 calories per day.

“That’s not even measurable on a bathroom scale,” ABA vice president of policy William Dermody Jr. told HuffPost.

Baylen Linnekin, an outspoken critic of the soda taxes and author of Biting the Hands That Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable, agreed that the soda taxes do not appear to be having the impact their supporters claim they do.

“There’s absolutely no evidence whatsoever from the taxes that have existed or been proposed that there is any connection between soda taxes and health,” Linnekin said.

Linnekin pointed to the overall trend of soda consumption running parallel to increasing rates of obesity in the U.S. as further evidence that there is no relationship between the two.

“There are lots of calories that aren’t taxed, so picking on soda is not a scientifically, economically or dietarily legitimate policy,” Linnekin added.

A new study from a team of Swedish researchers runs counter to some of the arguments of Linnekin and other tax opponents.

According to the study, published last month in the European Journal of Endocrinology, daily intake of sweetened beverages like soda was associated with double the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.

Proponents for the soda taxes also argue that such objections do not take into account the heightened rates of diet-related health challenges in low-income and minority communities in particular.

Opponents of a proposed sugary drink tax demonstrate outside Philadelphia's City Hall in June 2016.
Opponents of a proposed sugary drink tax demonstrate outside Philadelphia's City Hall in June 2016.
Credit: Matt Rourke/AP

Further, Jim O’Hara, director of health promotion policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit group, argues that such criticisms ignore the benefits associated from the revenue generated from such taxes.

In the case of Berkeley, money from the soda tax has funded youth-focused education programs on health, nutrition, cooking and gardening in the city’s public schools. The full impact of such programs, of course, won’t be fully understood for some time.

“Public health always depends on approaching a problem from many angles,” O’Hara told HuffPost. “[The tax opponents] are doing a very crude analysis that doesn’t fully address the issue.”

Regardless of what happens in the soda tax votes this Election Day, it is clear the broader battle on the issue has only begun.

Proponents of the taxes anticipate any victories at the ballot box will be met with legal action from the industry, just as they were in Philadelphia.

“The DNA of these beverage companies is ‘no regulations’ and they’re going to continue to fight,” Popkin said. “I can see them losing all of [the ballot measures], but I don’t think it will stop.”

Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food and water. In addition, Erbentraut explores the evolving ways Americans are identifying and defining themselves. Follow Erbentraut on Twitter at @robojojo. Tips? Email joseph.erbentraut@huffingtonpost.com.

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