Soda Taxes Seek to Improve Public Health

Kristine Chin '17 Contributing Writer 

On election day, voters in the cities of Berkeley and San Francisco decided on whether they support the taxing of sugary beverages. The Berkeley tax passed with 75% of the vote, while the San Francisco tax failed to pass with 54.5% of the vote, only two-thirds of the vote required.

The two measures have some differences. The San Francisco soda tax would place a two penny per fluid ounce tax on beverages that are 25 calories or more per 12 ounces with added caloric sweeteners such as sodas, energy drinks and non-pure juices. The tax does not include dietary drinks, baby formula, or milk products. The estimated tax revenue was over $54 million annually and the money would be legally required to go to specified areas; the public school district, the Department of Public Health, the Department of Recreation and Parks, and community based grants for those most affected by diseases caused by liquid sugars (such as diabetes and obesity) would receive funds. The allocation of money qualifies the tax as a special one, requiring two-thirds of the vote to pass. On the other hand, the Berkeley soda tax was a one penny per ounce tax on sugary beverages and the money is not legally allocated to specific areas. The money raised will be entered into the general city fund. For both pieces of legislation, the tax is not paid by the consumer or retailer, but by the distributors — soda companies.

For the past few months, grassroots campaigns have worked tirelessly to combat the pro-soda campaigns funded by the American Beverage Association. These grassroots campaigns relied heavily on strong volunteer bases and donations while the ABA spent over $10 million on false advertisements, staged protests and paid for “volunteers” and for votes and endorsements of several Democratic clubs in San Francisco. The Washington Post reports that the San Francisco Young Democrats accepted $21,500 from the ABA after announcing its anti-soda tax stance. With this, the ABA is beginning to look more like the abuser of corporate power and money that it is.

These two proposed taxes are comprehensive and would be a disincentive for people to buy sugary beverages. When Mexico enacted the first nationwide soda tax, within a month there was a 5 to 8% decrease in consumption. Before the cigarette tax in the United States, 48% of the population smoked. Now, only 18% smoke. Education itself will not be effective; this is already proven by the cigarette tax. The combination of education and a monetary disincentive leads to reduced consumption rates.

One of the main arguments against this tax is that it is regressive — targeting low-income individuals as they are only able to afford beverages at low prices. While this tax increases the prices of beverages (by 24 cents or 12 cents in San Francisco and Berkeley, respectively) — cost-conscious individuals are often most affected by diseases correlated with the consumption of liquid sugar and sugary beverages. Studies show that one in three children born today will contract type II diabetes in their lifetime. People of color, who comprise many of the low-income areas of San Francisco and Berkeley, are twice as susceptible to this disease and low-income areas are comprised primarily of minorities. In fact, soda companies know that low-income individuals are the least willing to spend money on expensive beverages and target these areas with copious amounts of ads. If a soda is $0.85 in a corner store and the water next to it is $1.25, there is little choice for the low-income individual as to which beverage they will choose.

The cost of the treatment for diabetes greatly outweighs the cost of this tax. According to the American Diabetes Association, a person diagnosed with diabetes spends $13,700 annually, 2.3 times more than the average person without diabetes spends. These taxes are not regressive; diabetes and other correlated diseases are regressive. These laws attempt to prevent the contraction of these diseases, reducing the cost burden on low-income families.

The scope and power of the ABA make it clear that we cannot change the beverage industry. The only way is to attack this issue one city at a time until it catches fire and starts a national movement. The passing of the Berkeley soda tax is the first step in this initiative. It is now up to other cities to begin their fight against the ABA and for their health of their communities.