Taxes (not to mention bans) on soda and other sugar sweetened beverages (SSBs) have faced significant setbacks. Despite efforts by the sugar industry to convince us otherwise, there is strong evidence that added sugar in our food and beverages is the smoking gun in the obesity crisis. For now, the battle against sugar sweetened beverage consumption is largely being fought at the city level, taking the form of a steady stream of attempts by municipal governments around the country to tax sugar in its liquid form*. In spite of beverage industry funded campaigns to prevent such initiatives from appearing on ballots, citizens of Boulder, CO will have the opportunity to vote on the implementation of a tax on sugar sweetened beverages in November.
There is a lot of evidence that demonstrates the worthiness of discouraging the consumption of sugary beverages. Added sugar in the American diet has increased by over 30% over the last three decades according to a study of surveys on food intake conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill**. Increased consumption of added sugars is linked to an increased risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. The FDA cites sugar-sweetened beverages as the main source of added sugar in the American diet: according to dietary guidelines published in 2010 by the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, soda and other SSBs accounted for a staggering 36% of added sugars consumed. Unsurprisingly, this abundant evidence has led many policy makers to conclude that a reduction in the consumption of added sugar could lead to subsequent reductions in disease and healthcare expenditure in their communities.
Based on the above evidence, some lawmakers have tried to implement taxes on the purchase of non-diet sodas and other SSBs. Despite many attempts, only one such tax is currently effective in the US today***. This tax resulted from the passing of Measure D in Berkeley, CA in November 2014 and imposes a tax on distributors of SSBs on a per fluid ounce basis. The measure was modeled on taxes imposed on tobacco, a policy initiative that effectively reduced the rate of smoking in the US. An early study of results in Berkeley showed promising results: consumption of soda and SSBs in Berkeley was reduced by 21% following the passage of Measure D vs a 4% reduction in control cities where similar tax measures were proposed but not passed.
Opposition to the tax appearing on the ballot in Boulder was initiated by a private citizen, Mark Gelband, whose legal fees are being covered by the Colorado Beverage Association. Gelband, who appears to be a frequent instigator of opposition against government regulation regardless of issue, filed a lawsuit that attempted to discredit a petition signed by 9,000 Boulder area residents in support of getting the SSB tax measure on the ballot. A local judge ruled against him, and the citizens of Boulder will subsequently have the opportunity to vote on the measure in November 2016.
I am thrilled to learn that Boulder residents will have the chance to consider enacting a policy measure that has shown promising reductions in the consumption of SSBs. In considering the history of tobacco use in this country, we know that an increase in taxes on cigarette and tobacco sales can be largely credited with a reduction in tobacco related deaths amongst Americans. Based on the soda industry’s attempts to crush local initiatives to tax soda and SSBs, we can assume that industry interests fear that such policy measures will indeed be effective in reducing the sale of beverages containing added sugar. The good news for beverage producers is that these taxes are only imposed on products that contain added sugar, meaning that sugar-free soda alternatives would not be affected. It’s possible that the passing of this measure will incentivize soda companies to invest in the development of healthier beverage options for consumers. This would allow the industry to maintain sales and profits while reducing the consumption of added sugar from SSBs in the population; a win-win for both industry and public health.
*Flavored milk is generally not included in these initiatives despite its containing added sugars
**Additional studies have shown a small decrease in the consumption of added sugar between the late nineties and 2007-2008. Despite this reduction, consumption levels remain well above recommendations. http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/94/3/726.full
***While not yet effective, Philadelphia passed a tax on SSBs in June 2016, which is scheduled to take effect in January 2017.