September 12 2016

In November, voters in four cities will decide whether to tax soda and sugary drinks: San Francisco,Oakland, Albany (CA) and Boulder, Colorado. These votes will come on the heels of Philadelphia’s decision this June to tax sugar-sweetened drinks, and Berkeley’s 2014 vote for the same. Momentum is building, just as research is emerging that these taxes can improve public health and equity.

Consider:

  • A recently released study by the University of California Berkeley (UCB) shows that:
    • Berkeley’s low-income neighborhoods are drinking 21% less soda and other sugary drinks since the tax was implemented in March 2015, while consumption of tap and bottled water increased by 63%.
    • As of March 2016, Berkeley’s soda tax has generated $1.5 million for community nutrition and health efforts, including school garden programs.
    • Meanwhile, there has been a 4% increase in soda consumption in adjacent San Francisco and Oakland, where there are no taxes (yet).
  • According to a recently published report in the BMJ, Mexico saw a 17% percent decline in soda consumption among low-income households after the first year of its one-peso-per-liter soda tax passed in 2013. Soda sales have decreased 12% since the passage, while bottled water sales have risen by 4%.

Why is this so important for public health and health equity? Because soda and other sugary drinks are the number-one source of added sugar in the American diet, and are linked to diabetes, heart and liver disease, and tooth decay. One-third of all children and nearly half of African-American and Latino children are predicted to develop diabetes in their lifetimes.

Though the evidence and benefits are clear, the beverage industry had been successful in defeating as many as two dozen soda tax initiatives in cities across the country. It has reserved roughly $9.5 million in television ad time opposing the three Bay Area soda tax initiatives, and has already spent $1 million on commercials – including $747,267 in Oakland alone. As expected, Big Soda is preying on the economic anxieties of Oaklanders by branding the initiative as a “grocery tax” that would disproportionately impact low-income residents.

These expressions of concern for the welfare of Oakland’s marginalized communities, particularly communities of color, are coming from the same industry that shamelessly blankets low-income neighborhoods with its ads and has saddled generations of its low-income consumers with high-price tagged medical conditions linked to diet.

In 2013, the beverage industry spent approximately $866 million marketing soda and sugary drinks to children, especially low-income kids of color. Black youth saw more than twice as many TV ads for sugary drinks and energy drinks compared with white youth and black teens saw four times as many Sprite ads and three times as many Coca-Cola ads as their white counterparts. Hispanic youth were 93% more likely to visit all beverage company websites compared with all youth, while black youth were 34% more likely to visit these websites.

Berkeley and Philadelphia are the tipping point of a growing national movement to push back against an industry that profits at the expense of public health. With each successive victory, more cities across the country will be inspired and emboldened to stand up to Big Soda, and this action will bubble up to the state and national level.

For more about the study, please read this Los Angeles Times article, “Berkeley sees a big drop in soda consumption after penny-per-ounce ‘soda tax’”