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Be Well

Berkeley Soda Tax: It's a Success!

by John Swartzberg, M.D.  

Soda taxes are working: A new study by my colleague Kristine Madsen and her associates at UC Berkeley found that consumption of sugary drinks has fallen by half in low-income areas of Berkeley, California, since 2014, when the city’s penny-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages went into effect. Approved by three-quarters of Berkeley residents, the tax applies to carbonated soft drinks, sports drinks, sweetened teas, specialty coffee drinks, and energy drinks.

Soda taxes, which are levied on distributors but usually passed on to consumers, are intended to be part of the arsenal used to fight obesity, since sugar-sweetened beverages provide “empty calories” (calories with little or no nutritional value). Sugary beverages are also associated with a higher risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and tooth decay. In addition, the tax provides a source of revenue for municipalities—in Berkeley, it funds nutrition education, school gardening programs, and community organizations that encourage healthy lifestyles.

The study, published in the American Journal of Public Health in April, is the first to examine the longer-term impact of soda taxes in the U.S. and was based on annual beverage frequency questionnaires given to hundreds of Berkeley residents in demographically and racially diverse neighborhoods, where consumption of sweetened beverages tends to be high. The big drop seen between 2014 and 2017 is more than double the 21 percent decline that occurred during the first year of the soda tax in Berkeley—an indicator that the benefit of the tax accrues over time (and that large numbers of residents are not buying soda in adjacent cities without soda taxes). The researchers noted that consumption of sugary beverages has also declined in Oakland and San Francisco since those cities enacted their own soda taxes—in mid-2017 and 2018, respectively.

Philadelphia, Seattle, Boulder, and several other U.S. cities have also come on board with soda taxes in recent years. So, too, have entire countries, including Mexico, Hungary, France, and the U.K. In Mexico, where a peso-per-liter soda tax was enacted in 2013, purchases dropped by 12 percent one year after it went into effect.

These taxes are sweet news for public health, especially for the health of children, to whom soft drinks are aggressively marketed. That’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics released a joint statement with the American Heart Association in March that, among other public health recommendations for reducing sugar intake in children, endorsed a sugar tax.

Millions of dollars have been spent by the beverage industry to fight them. And, much to my dismay, California and Washington passed bills in 2018 prohibiting other cities and counties [municipalities] in their states from enacting new soda taxes (at least for a certain number of years).

We wisely tax tobacco and alcohol (and other “vices”), and I hope that more communities will enact soda taxes that will help reduce rates of costly and preventable chronic diseases. The evidence is in: The taxes are doing what they are supposed to do.