I’m proud that the city of Berkeley made history in November 2014 when three-quarters of its residents approved the country’s first tax on sugary soft drinks, despite millions spent by the soda industry to defeat it. The tax will be a penny per ounce—12 cents on a can of soda, 68 cents on a two-liter bottle.
A soda tax lost in San Francisco because “only” 55 percent of people voted for it, falling short of the two-thirds majority needed—not really surprising, since Big Soda and its allies outspent supporters of the tax by more than 25-to-1. In recent years soda taxes were voted down in all of the 30 or so cities and states where they were proposed. The soda industry hopes that Berkeley, well known for its progressive politics, is an “anomaly,” but other cities and states are now more optimistic that they can follow our lead (supporters in San Francisco plan to bring the tax up for a vote again). Whether they succeed or not, the spotlight on sugary beverages will make many more people think twice about consuming them.
The tax will almost certainly reduce sales of sugary beverages (including sports drinks, energy drinks, and sweetened iced teas), especially among poorer consumers. That’s what has happened in Mexico since it enacted a soda tax last year. Taxes on cigarettes have certainly been a big force in reducing their sales.
Soda and other “liquid candy” supply about half of the added sugar in the average American diet and are aggressively marketed to children. One can of soda contains nine teaspoons of sugar and about 150 calories. That by itself is the daily limit for added sugar from all sources set for men by the American Heart Association (AHA); for women the daily limit is just six teaspoons, and for children three to four teaspoons.
Added sugars not only cause weight gain, they disproportionately increase the risk of diabetes and heart disease because of how they are metabolized by the body. That’s why the AHA and many other health organizations have supported the soda tax in Berkeley and elsewhere. Liquid calories are especially likely to cause weight gain since they don’t reduce appetite as much as solid foods.
For more information about the dangers of added sugars, go to SugarScience.org, an excellent website produced by Dr. Robert Lustig and his colleagues at UC San Francisco.