By Tia Will
One year ago, the Davis City Council considered putting a sugary beverage tax on the ballot. By a 3-2 vote, the Council delayed such a measure. Amongst the reasons given were that there had not been ample time for community discussion, and that there was not yet evidence of the efficacy of this approach to support the goal of reduction of sugary beverages, demonstrated to lead to the development of obesity and Type II diabetes, the latter of which directly caused over 76,000 deaths in 2014. Objections to the proposed tax have been presented by various community members and posters on the Vanguard.
In this article, I would like to summarize what I see as some of the salient information that has been gathered in the interim and why we should revisit the issue now.
The primary intent of a sugary beverage tax is to stimulate a reduction in the public’s consumption of sugary beverages. These beverages should be considered a consumable product, not a food, based on their lack of significant nutritional value. An indirect but important secondary goal would be a reduction in the incidence in obesity and Type II diabetes with their attendant poor health consequences and generation of preventable and expensive medical care.
Another benefit would be revenue for designated purposes such as childhood health education and/or recreational and physical activity programs.to further promote health and wellness and reduce medical costs, both social and financial.
Equally important is an understanding of what a sugary beverage tax is not. It is not a panacea. Those of us who support the proposed tax do so as one part of a multipronged approach. We also want to strengthen education on best health practices including dietary choices, exercise, wellness practices such as healthy stress reduction techniques, and adequate sleep. My daughter, a science teacher at a charter middle school is currently working on ways to incorporate these practices into a science curriculum. However, those of us who have practiced clinical medicine or built careers in public health are aware that educational policies alone have proven inadequate to stem the surge of obesity and Type II diabetes. The complications of these conditions devastate individual lives, disrupt the well being of families and are one of the single greatest drivers of health care costs in our country. It is past time for a new and broader approach.
Of course, it is critical to address the question of “will it work?” Next, let’s take a look at the experiences of communities that have already adopted this tax. From the cited Wikipeda article :
Denmark instituted a soft drink tax in 1930’s which was rescinded in 2013 due to unpopularity of the measure which was believed to be harming the economy. Denmark is relatively low in incidence of obesity and Type II diabetes. It will be interesting to see if this changes with the drop in soda price.
France introduced a targeted sugary beverage tax in 2012 with a decline in consumption within the first year of enactment. In Hungary, a tax came into effect in 2011 with a reported decrease in consumption of 19% of sugary beverages. Ireland approved a soda tax to start in 2018. Mexico’s tax was approved in 2013.
According to a 2016 study published in the British Medical Journal: “annual sales of sodas in Mexico declined 6% in 2014 after the introduction of the soda tax. Monthly sales figures for December 2014 were down 12% on the previous two years. Households with the fewest resources had an average reduction in purchases of 9% in 2014, increasing to 17% by December.”
A 2016 study published in PLoS Medicine suggested that a 10% excise tax on soda “could prevent 189,300 new cases of Type 2 diabetes, 20,400 strokes and heart attacks, and 18,900 deaths among adults 35 to 94 years old” over a ten-year period. The study also included that “the reductions in diabetes alone could yield savings in projected healthcare costs of $983 million.”
Experience in the US
Berkeley’s Measure D soda tax was approved by 76% of Berkeley voters in November 2014, and took effect on January 1, 2015 as the first such tax in the United States.
In August, 2016, a UC Berkeley study showed a 21% drop in the consumption of soda and sugary beverages in low-income neighborhoods in its city.
Additional cities that have passed the tax and whose results will be important to watch are: Philadelphia, San Francisco, Oakland, Albany, California, Boulder, Colorado, and Cook County, Illinois.
Historically, proponents of a sugary beverage tax have pointed out that taxation of cigarettes was one key component of a multipronged approach that included education, prohibition of marketing to minors, warning labels, in school education, and local and regional limitations on permissible locations for smoking. I would urge such a comprehensive approach to sugary beverages.
But, what about the organized opposition? There are a number of arguments that I have heard put forth.
1. It is a feel good, do nothing measure that will not work. This is frequently stated, however, infrequently backed by any evidence to support the claim. While the existing data to support efficacy is limited due to the recent passage of these bills, the preliminary findings look promising.
2. It is a regressive tax that will have the most impact on the poor. I agree that it will have the most impact on the poor. I see this as a good, not a harm since the beverages being targeted have little to no nutritional benefit and actively harm those who consume them to excess. When one considers that the poor are those who are most adversely affected by these beverages and have obesity and Type II diabetes at higher rates than the more affluent, I see it as a distinct health advantage rather than a detriment.
3. It is social engineering and a “nanny state” law. As are many laws for the protection of the public that we accept without much if any complaint. We accept the benefits of speed limits. We accept the life saving benefits of seat belts. We accept laws regulating at what age one can drive or purchase alcohol or cigarettes. Many who would object ideologically to this tax are the same folks who favor dictating what legal medical procedures are accessible to specific groups within our population. I would further argue that this is much less restrictive than many of our other laws since the consumption of sugary beverages is a purely optional choice which no one has to make to have a healthy, productive life, profitable life.
4. It’s bad for business. Coca Cola and other major producers and distributors of sugary beverages have mounted a major campaign against these measures. This suggests to me that they do not share the opinion that these taxes will be ineffective. However, let’s look at the tactics employed. I have included an article on the subject with references for anyone interested. I was particularly struck by these quotes from Coca Cola strategists.
“We will actively campaign to register that a soft drink tax is discriminatory, regressive and will not address the challenge of obesity” Joana Price, Coca-Cola (3/16/16)
“Our next steps include furthering relationships with newly elected city council officials to prevent discussion of beverage taxes in the future. We also have an engagement plan for Philadelphia Mayoral Democratic nominee, Jim Kenney.” Lauren Craig, Coca-Cola Philadelphia (6/11/15).
Please note the phrase “to prevent discussion of beverage taxes in the future.” How better to prevent the spread of an idea than to “prevent discussion.” What better way to promote discussion than to put a measure on the ballot for public consideration?
So rather than concentrating their money on research to provide more healthful products, the large sugary beverage companies are sinking millions of dollars into local, regional, national, and international campaigns to cast doubt on the scientific evidence of harm, to present actual benefits as harm to entire communities and are claiming the victim role in terms of discrimination while casting doubt upon the evidence of the disproportional harm of their products and to prevent discussion.
I am not calling for an authoritarian mandated law. I am asking for re-opening consideration of a sugary beverage tax with the goal of a full and robust consideration of the known facts, pros, and cons, and ultimately a measure that would allow the community to decide through the democratic process of a vote. It is my opinion that not allowing full discussion and a vote is just as authoritarian and undemocratic as some consider the tax itself to be.
For references and further information see: