A Big Blow for Big Soda

Originally published in Civil Eats

By Anna Lappé on November 10, 2016


As we begin to sort through the post-election rubble, it’s worth taking a close look at what happened with soda taxes at the ballot box.

This year, Big Soda spent nearly $39 million to stop taxes on sugary beverages in five U.S. cities. They filled mailboxes and flooded the airways with misleading ads, they engaged lawyers in legal battles, and padded the pockets of local progressives to try to turn them against the tax all to convince people to vote against a penny per fluid ounce tax—in the case of Boulder, Colorado, a two-cent per fluid ounce tax—on the distributors of sugar-sweetened beverages.

But it’s too late: The cultural tipping point on soda is already here. Philadelphia passed a tax in June. And yesterday, three Northern California cities—San Francisco, Oakland, and Albany, which borders Berkeley to the north—and Boulder all passed taxes with sizable margins.

“Despite the billions spent on marketing and more than $30 million in deceitful campaign ads, voters saw the truth and sent a clear message that their families’ health comes first,” said Jim Krieger of Healthy Food America.

These wins are proof that the conversation about soda is changing. It’s a conversation backed by solid science. We now know that liquid sugar is the single largest source of added sugars in our diets and is a leading cause of heart disease, liver disease, and Type 2 diabetes. We know regularly consuming just one or two sugary drinks a day will increase your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. Soda and other sweet beverages are also the main cause of cavities and dental decay. What’s more, consuming liquid sugar doesn’t send the same signals of fullness to our minds, so we don’t register these drinks’ calories in the same way we do as when we eat calories.

With these wins, ballot measures taking on soda taxes could be “the new normal for Big Soda,” said Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) in a statement. On Thursday, Cook County, Illinois, home to Chicago, will vote on a similar tax on sugary drinks; other municipalities nationwide are exploring soda tax ballot measures as well.

In its recent Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity, the World Health Organization (WHO)’s clearest recommendation was for governments to implement a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. As Dr. Margaret Chan, director of the WHO, said in a speech last month, “Diabetes is one of the biggest global health crises of the 21st century … The interest of the public must be prioritized over those of corporations.”

While some of the research is still taking shape around the benefits of soda taxes, we know they work for several reasons: First, they decrease consumption, which translates into lives saved and health care costs diverted. In Mexico, where a soda tax passed in 2014, consumption dropped by 12 percent in the first year.

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