Ballot measures taxing sugar-sweetened beverages passed with majorities and in some instances super-majorities last week in San Francisco, Oakland, and Albany in California and in Boulder, Colorado.
Jim Krieger, the executive director of Healthy Food America told Vox: “This is an astonishing repudiation of big soda. For too long, the big soda companies got away with putting profits over their customers’ health. That changed tonight.”
Forty previously floated tax measures failed in the past decade, and given the conservative turnout Tuesday it seemed improbable that the well-financed opposition led by the American Beverage Association would fail. Opponents outspent supporters 3 to 2 in the $50-million battle. In San Francisco, voters considered more than three dozen ballot measures—but when the fizz of battle had cleared, voters overwhelmingly sided with health experts. Sugary drinks are linked to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay, and research in Berkeley and Mexico, which passed a national soda tax in 2014, demonstrates taxes drive down consumption.
Michael Bloomberg and philanthropists Laura and John Arnold emerged as heroes of the cause, together contributing more than $12 million. The billionaires’ sizeable donations enabled pro-initiative campaign workers to air pro-tax TV and radio commercials. Proponents launched a massive direct mail campaign modeled on Berkeley’s successful effort two years ago to became the first U.S. city to pass a soda tax.
The ballot victories bode well for specialty tea suppliers and retailers. Companies such as Ito En and Numi Organic Tea offer ready-to-drink specialty lines that are safely within guidelines. The vote signals corn-syrup-sweetened, heavily flavored “teas” visible in convenience outlets will gradually withdraw, opening precious shelf space for healthier alternates.
The 1-cent-per-ounce tax is cleverly imposed on distributors, not at the cash register. The public will pay, of course; The New York Times estimates prices will increase by 67 cents for a two-liter bottle, or $1.44 for a 12-pack. The tax in Boulder is 2 cents per ounce. Chicago will consider a soda tax in late November. The city council in Philadelphia passed its own soda tax in June.
A reduction in calories is inevitable given the continuing decline of soda and the rise of nonsugary and lightly sweetened beverages. In 2009, the New England Journal of Medicine found that by “the mid-1990s children’s intake of sugared beverages surpassed that of milk. In the past decade, per capita intake of calories from sugar-sweetened beverages has increased by nearly 30%, beverages now account for 10 to 15% of the calories consumed by children and adolescents. For each extra can or glass of sugared beverage consumed per day, the likelihood of a child’s becoming obese increases by 60%.”
The idea of taxing sugar-sweetened beverages originated in medical journals and gained momentum in Europe, where the United Kingdom and Denmark passed soda taxes.
The Vox report explains that it will take more than a few cents to discourage sugary-drink consumption. In the U.K., pure juice drinks and sugared milk-based drinks are exempt. But even if soda taxes don’t immediately change health, they do have other benefits.
“In Britain, revenue from the drink taxes will fund childhood obesity interventions, such as sports programs in primary schools. In Berkeley, the money goes to children’s health programs in low-income areas that are battling particularly high rates of childhood obesity. Philadelphia’s tax will fund an array of community and education initiatives, including universal pre-kindergarten classes, building new community schools, and improving recreation centers, parks, and libraries throughout the city,” according to the report.