Battle Brews on Soda Tax ahead of November Ballots

Zoe Mcintyre

On 8 November citizens in San Francisco, Oakland, and Albany, in California, and in Boulder, in Colorado, will cast their votes on proposed measures to place a levy on sugar-sweetened beverages that health experts identify as causing chronic diseases such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease.

The soda industry has fervently opposed taxation, with its big three members—the American Beverage Association, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo—pouring at least US$67 million into anti-tax lobbying since 2009, according to a report from the Center for the Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). With a month to go, Big Soda has already spent US$10 million and US$3.8 million in San Francisco and Oakland respectively in an attempt to dissuade voters.

Jim O’Hara, CSPI’s Director of Health Promotion Policy, commented: “The industry is on the losing side of history. It understands that the tax policies are gaining steam and have a lot of support in the communities. They are going to keep writing big checks to stem the tides.”

Activists have condemned Big Soda for referring to a ‘grocery tax’ that falsely suggests prices will rise on all supermarket goods even though ballot language makes clear that only soda drink distributors will be levied. “I don’t think these arguments are ringing true with voters,” says O’Hara. “Consumers understand more and more about the health risks associated with sugary drinks.”

The industry may well fear a knock-on effect if the Bay Area and Boulder approve taxes this November. As Jim Krieger, Executive Director of Health for America, points out: “Success will inspire more communities across the U.S. to adopt taxes, and more states to pursue them.” In 2009, when a sugar-drink tax was considered in Congress to pay for healthcare reforms, Big Soda’s lobbying rose from US$2 a year to US$40 million. 

In recent years, more than 30 soda tax proposals in the United States have been beaten back. A turning point came in March 2015 when Berkeley, California, made history by approving a penny-per-ounce levy on sugary drinks. The city has since seen a 21 percent drop in soda consumption among low-income residents and a 63 percent rise in water consumption, according to a study in the American Journal of Public Health.

Big Soda lost further ground in June 2016 when Philadelphia, a city where 41 percent of children are overweight, introduced a 1.5 percent per ounce soda tax alongside a plan to spend US$90 million in new tax revenue on children’s public health measure. Big Soda has filed a lawsuit to halt the levy’s implementation set for January 2017.

Supporters see the tax policies as a way to raise revenue to promote health, increase awareness of the risks of sugary drinks, and encourage producers to offer healthier alternatives. In a new report, the World Health Organization advised countries to adopt the fiscal measures due to; “increasing evidence that appropriately designed taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages would result in proportional reductions in consumption.”

The taxes echo a worldwide impetus towards sugary drinks taxation and several countries including Mexico, the United Kingdom, France, and Chile have already enacted measures. In Mexico, where the average person consumes 36 gallons of soda a year and 76,000 people died of diabetes in 2015, campaigners see the peso-per-liter soda levy as a step forward for public health.

Approval in the ballots may not only add momentum to the U.S. soda tax campaign but also strengthen campaigns in other countries such as Colombia, where the drinks industry has already succeeded in having anti-sugar broadcast banned.