The 2016 Soda Tax Battle

November 1st, 2016 | Viewpoint


Forget about the presidential election for a few minutes. Important public health measures are on the ballot this year—soda taxes—and they deserve our attention!

In 2014, Berkeley became the first city to pass a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages (aka “soda tax”). Over the past two years, public health advocates have been making headway in raising awareness of the negative health effects of sugar drinks. In June 2015, San Francisco passed legislation requiring a warning on any sugary beverage ads. After a fierce battle with the beverage industry (Big Soda), Philadelphia became the first major city to pass a soda tax this past Spring. Just last month, the World Health Organization urged all countries to tax sugary drinks in order to combat global obesity. Four cities—Oakland, San Francisco, Albany (CA), and Boulder, CO—will vote on a soda tax ballot measure this November.

So, what’s changed since 2014? How is 2016’s soda tax battle different this time around?

  1. We have solid evidence that soda taxes work. A recent study conducted by UC Berkeley demonstrated a 21% reduction in soda consumption among consumers in low-income Berkeley neighborhoods after the tax was implemented in March 2015. Not only did the tax discourage sugary drink consumption but it also encouraged consumers to switch to healthier drinks: during the study period, consumption of tap and bottled water among residents increased by 63%. Only 2% of Berkeley residents reported traveling across city lines to buy tax-free soda. It’s also possible that increased awareness around the soda tax before and after the tax was implemented played a role in reducing consumption. Mexico, which implemented a 10% tax on sugary drinks in 2013, has seen a 6% reduction in purchases of taxed beverages.
  2. Soda tax revenue is being used to fund community health and education programs. Based on recommendations from an expert panel, the City of Berkeley has dedicated over $2 million of soda tax revenue to the local school district and community health programs that aim to reduce sugary drink consumption. In Philadelphia, enrollment just started for the pre-K program funded by the tax. Soda taxes are being looked to as a viable option for raising much-needed revenue for municipalities to improve the health and well-being of citizens.
  3. Big Soda is worried – and they should be. In recent weeks, a series of leaked documents unveiled Coca Cola’s global strategy to squash soda tax efforts at the local, state, and country levels. Two specific strategies included paying dieticians to promote anti-soda-tax sentiments and giving money to health organizations to silence them. One thing these documents make clear: Big Soda understands that soda taxes are the policy that makes the biggest impact, and recognizes that momentum is growing—their profits are at stake. Since 2009, they’ve spent $67 million to lobby against soda tax ballot measures alone and $28.3 million just in the Bay Area this year.
  4. Big Soda continues to mislead voters, grocers, and pretty much everyone else. In the Bay Area, the industry is framing the soda tax as a “grocery tax,” alleging that the tax will be passed on in the form of increased prices on common grocery items like bread and milk. Starting as early as June, they’ve sent dozens of mailers to Bay Area residents with statements that are deceitful and factually incorrect, specifically targeting low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. The cost of grocery items hasn’t increased in Berkeley, and other Bay Area grocers say it’s unlikely. In California, it’s actually illegal to tax groceries per the state Constitution. But Big Soda hopes that if they repeat the message enough times, it will stick and their fiction will become fact in voter’s minds.

As public health advocates, we’ve got evidence on our side to support the positive impact of soda taxes: reduced consumption, increased awareness, and revenue raised. The evidence against sugary drinks continues to mount as the beverage industry’s disturbing tactics are revealed daily. The ball is in our court on November 8th.

*Disclaimer: The author is a volunteer for Oakland vs. Big Soda.


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