By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS
Voters in four U.S. cities showed their clear support Tuesday for taxes on sugary drinks, despite tens of millions of dollars in spending against the ballot measures by the beverage industry.
In California, San Francisco, Albany and Oakland approved a penny-per-ounce tax on sodas and other sugary beverages, such as flavored teas, and sports and energy drinks, while Boulder, Colorado, voters approved a 2-cents-per-ounce tax. They join Berkeley, California, the Navajo Nation and Philadelphia in the “soda tax” movement aimed to reduce consumption and tackle heart disease, diabetes, tooth decay and other health issues attributed to overloading on sugar.
“That they all passed rather decisively makes me feel optimistic we’ll see more measures like this across the country,” said Marlene Schwartz, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. Along with a soda tax revenue calculator for local governments, the center has provided consumption and price elasticity research to sugary drink tax advocates.
In fact, commissioners in Cook County, Illinois, are set to debate a budget proposal Thursday that includes a penny-per-ounce tax on sweetened and diet beverages. The board could vote on the measure that day, with a final vote on the budget next week. The county, which includes Chicago, has more than 5 million residents, making it the nation’s second-largest county behind Los Angeles.
The American Beverage Association, the industry trade group representing soda and other drink companies such as PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, spent tens of millions of dollars to defeat the taxes. In San Francisco alone, its spending last week reached $21.3 million, with radio and television ads blanketing the city positioning the measure as an “unfair grocery tax.”
But proponents fought back, recruiting small businesses and other advocates, saying reducing the consumption of sugar-loaded drinks helps all families, especially those with low incomes, who are disproportionately affected by higher rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other health problems.
Supporters point to studies that said a tax on the distribution of sugary drinks passed down to consumers can cut consumption. In August, a study on Berkeley’s tax, passed in 2014, showed lower-income residents reduced their consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages by 21 percent compared with the pretax days.
American Heart Association Chief Executive Officer Nancy Brown called the ballot results a “big win” for public health.
“We applaud voters for rejecting the big spending and false arguments of outsiders and standing up for what they knew was right for their community,” she said. “From sports drinks to sodas to fruit-flavored drinks, today’s children are drinking their age in these sugary drinks each week. Reducing consumption will improve rates of diabetes, heart disease and tooth decay.”
Schwartz said the large amounts of spending by the soda industry proves how effective the soda taxes can be on consumption.
“It wouldn’t be worth them spending millions of dollars to stop something that isn’t going to affect their sales,” she said. “The more they fight, the clearer it is that this is an effective strategy to decrease consumption.”
Here’s how voters cast their ballots. The results are preliminary and will be certified later:
— San Francisco – 61.9 percent in favor, with 38.1 percent against
— Albany, California – 70.7 percent in favor, with 29.3 percent against
— Oakland, California – 60.8 percent in favor, with 39.3 percent against
— Boulder, Colorado – 54.0 percent in favor, with 46.0 percent against
Health advocates were already looking beyond Tuesday’s wins to ride the sugary drinks tax momentum.
“The mere presence on today’s ballots of measures to tax sugar-drinks in four different cities is the new normal for Big Soda,” said Michael F. Jacobson, co-founder and president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit health advocacy group. “The lessons learned by the community groups and advocates in these campaigns will be shared across the country and brought to bear in other cities and states.”
Schwartz believes the ground gained in Tuesday’s clean sweep for soda taxes could be a sign for the beverage industry to change tactics, and, perhaps, find a compromise.
“What’s the beverage industry going to do for the next three, four or five places that put this on their agenda?” she said. “Will they keep spending millions of dollars? … They might change their strategy and stop playing whack-a-mole and come up with [a compromise] at the federal level. At some point they get tired and run out of money.”