The Impact of America’s First Soda Tax

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This election year, voters across America will head to the polls and decide whether their cities should tax sugary drinks. For those voters, and for anyone else wondering how a decision like that might relate to real life, look no further than Berkeley, California.

After enacting the nation’s first soda tax, Berkeley has cut sugar-sweetened beverage consumption by 21 percent. A study published in the American Journal of Public Health questioned residents in two of Berkeley’s low-income neighborhoods and found that water consumption increased more than 63 percent than in comparison cities.

“From a public health perspective, that is a huge impact. That is an intervention that’s more powerful than anything I’ve ever seen aimed at changing someone’s dietary behavior,” said senior author Kristine Madsen, a professor of public health at the University of California at Berkeley, in a telephone interview to Reuters.

To prevent rising rates of obesity and diabetes, Berkeley voters passed a penny-per-ounce tax on soda and other sugary drinks. In March 2015, after the tax began, residents reported drinking 26 percent less soda than they had the previous year.

“I hadn’t expected the effects to be so dramatic,” said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. “This is substantial evidence that soda taxes work.”

The Philadelphia City Council enacted a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages that is expected to take effect in January 2017. The 1.5 cent-per-ounce tax has faced opposition from soda trade groups who have sued to try to block the tax.

Voters in Boulder, Colorado and in California cities of San Francisco, Oakland and Albany are set to vote on whether to tax sugary drinks on Nov. 8. San Francisco has already considered a soda tax in 2014, but it failed to raise a two-thirds majority needed for approval.

The study conducted on Berkeley is receiving attention as proof of the power of a soda tax to discourage residents from drinking sweetened drinks. San Francisco Supervisor Malia Cohen wrote the San Francisco ballot measure and said the study measures how effective the tax is.

“The study is another tool highlighting how effective a tax on sugary beverages will be on changing the consumption rate,” Cohen said. “Just like tobacco, these are commodities we can live without that are killing us.”

The study showed that while sweetened beverage consumption dropped in Berkeley, it increased slightly in San Francisco and Oakland. Water consumption increased only 19 percent in the two cities after the tax took effect.

Researchers attributed the surge in water consumption to a heat wave, but the American Beverage Association used it as an example of the study’s flaws. Brad Williams, an economist for the ABA, said the researched used “unreliable and imprecise methodology,” producing “implausible” results.

“Obviously, the ABA is going to attack the results,” Nestle said. “That’s rule number one in the playbook: cast doubt on the science.”

Public health experts have cited soda as one of the factors that helped obesity rates in the U.S. rise to among the highest in the world. In addition, diabetes rates have almost tripled over the past three decades, while sugary beverage consumption doubled.

The U.S. spent an estimated $190 billion treating obesity-related conditions in 2012.

Tori Linville

Tori Linville is a freelance writer and editor from Clarksville, Tennessee. When she isn’t writing or teaching, she’s faithfully watching her alma mater, the University of Alabama, dominate the football field.