While there has been a philosophical opposition to the soda tax by some, for the most part the push back has come on the issue of whether a soda tax will actually work. We hedge our bets on this by considering two factors – the question of whether a soda tax will reduce consumption, and the opportunity to use the revenue from a soda tax to help treat the effects of obesity and diabetes, particularly on underprivileged youth.
But while the empirical evidence is admittedly thin – Berkeley is the only jurisdiction to implement the tax so far and it has been in effect for less than a full year, and Mexico has some evidence that their tax has reduced consumption – we have perhaps a far more reliable gauge of effectiveness.
Earlier this year Davis became the first in the nation to eliminate soda as the default beverage in kids’ meals at restaurants. We supported the effort. But in a lot of ways it was a very subtle change, forcing parents to opt-in for soda consumption rather than opt-out. It certainly made me more cognizant of the issue and brought some people awareness as to just how much sugar are in beverages.
But, in the scheme of things, it was low-hanging fruit. The beverage industry did not come to Davis, pressure politicians, and purchase ads about default beverages at restaurants in Davis.
A lot of us underrate the importance of what I call political body language. It is not what they say that matters but rather what they do. In their ad, the beverage industry argues that the tax will “hurt the poor,” will “harm small businesses,” and will “not stop people from buying soda.”
Mayor Pro Tem Robb Davis pointed out that these were similar to arguments made when cigarette taxes were implemented, but it turned out that small businesses survived cigarette taxes.
But let us consider the bottom line: that taxes “do not stop people from buying soda.” No one believes that taxes are going to “stop” people from buying soda. That is not even a question. Cigarette taxes did not stop people from purchasing cigarettes. The real question is whether they reduce consumption. It is a subtle change of language from “stop” to “reduce,” but it is critical to analyzing the situation.
Here is what we know. The American Beverage Association poured $9.1 million into San Francisco in order to defeat Proposition E. It eventually spent $2.4 million to try to defeat Measure D, the Berkeley soda tax. Remember that Berkeley is far smaller than San Francisco.
An independent news site noted, “The American Beverage Association California PAC, which is funding the campaign, donated $1.4 million but has actually spent more. The campaign is also carrying $947,433 in accrued expenses. The bulk of the money is going to campaign literature, advertising, a website and campaign, and public relations consultants.”
A 2014 New York Times article reported, “The beverage industry has spent more than $117 million nationally to defeat or roll back soda taxes since 2009, said Michael F. Jacobson, the executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit organization. The battles have been fought in Congress and in courthouses: in Maine, Texas and New York; in Philadelphia and in Washington; and in such small towns as Telluride, Colo., and El Monte and Richmond in California.”
So, while the words of the beverage industry are that soda taxes “do not stop people from buying soda,” their body language and the amount of money they are pouring into these campaigns to prevent cities from enacting soda tax says something very different.
Dr. Harold Goldstein told the Vanguard a few weeks ago that he expects the beverage industry to pour $2 million into Davis to stop the soda tax. They have already pumped money into advertising in an effort to dissuade the city council from even putting the measure on the ballot. They were even able to “roll” one of the biggest proponents of the measure.
Logic tells us that they would not do that unless they had very good reason (probably backed by studies and consultant reports) that the soda tax would harm their bottom line, and the only way it would harm their bottom line is if it ended up reducing consumption – not by a little, but by a lot.
Based on the behavior of the beverage industry, we can infer that consumption will go down.
While it is important to understand that a soda tax is not going to cure obesity and diabetes, there is a strong link between the two.
Dr. Goldstein told us that the research suggests that the proliferation of sugar beverages over the last four years has greatly contributed to obesity problems. From 1977 to 2001, people consumed about 278 calories more and about 43 percent of those calories came from beverages.
He argued that consuming just one soda a day increases the risk of obesity by 50 percent and of diabetes by 30 percent.
A 2010 study published by the National Institute of Health found that, “Consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs), which include soft drinks, fruit drinks, iced tea, and energy and vitamin water drinks has risen across the globe. Regular consumption of SSBs has been associated with weight gain and risk of overweight and obesity.”
It concluded, “In addition to weight gain, higher consumption of SSBs is associated with development of metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. These data provide empirical evidence that intake of SSBs should be limited to reduce obesity-related risk of chronic metabolic diseases.”
Do we have enough evidence here? The beverage industry is pumping millions into these campaigns because they believe that soda taxes will harm their bottom line – and despite their rhetoric, that means that people will greatly reduce consumption, and the link between sugary beverage consumption and obesity and diabetes is well established.
The beverage industry’s money, therefore, is telling you that they believe a soda tax will work. Shouldn’t you take that into account?
—David M. Greenwald reporting