The nation’s first soda tax is fulfilling health experts’ goals in Berkeley, California.
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Sales of sugar-sweetened beverages dropped nearly 10 percent during the first year of the tax, which raised $1.4 million for child nutrition and community health programs, a new study showed.
“I’m calling it a home run,” lead author Dr. Lynn D. Silver, a senior advisor at the Public Health Institute in Oakland, said of the measure.
She ticked off the accomplishments of the penny-per-ounce tax in a phone interview. After it took effect in March 2015, residents drank less sugary drinks and more water, milk, and other healthier beverages; average consumer grocery bills did not rise, despite soda company warnings; local store revenue did not, as tax opponents predicted, fall; and the tax raised money for health-education programs.
Berkeley voters levied the tax on soda and other sugary drinks to try to curb consumption and stem the epidemics of obesity and diabetes. Similar taxes have been levied around the globe, from Mexico to Colombia, France, and South Africa.
Last year, other U.S. municipalities—including Philadelphia, San Francisco, Oakland and Cook County, Illinois, which includes Chicago—approved laws to tax sugary beverages.
The new study, reported online April 18 in PLoS Medicine, evaluated changes in beverage sales in Berkeley during the tax’s first year. Sugar-sweetened drink sales fell 9.6 percent compared to predicted sales without the tax, while sales of untaxed beverages, like water and milk, rose 3.5 percent.
“The findings suggest that sugary-drink taxes make health and economic sense,” Silver said.
Proponents of soda taxes hailed the study as evidence of their effectiveness.
Michael F. Jacobson, president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C., called the tax “a huge public-health victory.” He urged policymakers and voters in cities and counties without soda taxes to review the study and press for similar measures.
“This study won’t stop Big Soda from claiming that taxes don’t work,” said Jacobson, who was not involved with the research. “But if soda taxes didn’t make a significant dent in soda consumption, the industry wouldn’t be fighting taxes so hard.”
The American Beverage Association, which represents Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, said in a statement that the new “study acknowledges that taxes do not demonstrate a meaningful reduction in obesity rates.”
Silver called the trade group’s statement “simply false.” Her study did not attempt to judge the tax’s impact on obesity and diabetes rates.
“The soda tax did what it set out to do, which was to lower the sales of sugar-sweetened beverages and to increase consumption of healthier beverages,” she said.
“Our current obesity and diabetes rates are the result of decades of intensive marketing and growing consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and other unhealthy foods,” she said. “It is far too soon to assess the impact of the tax on obesity and diabetes rates.”
Silver said that when she was training to become a pediatrician in the 1980s, she never saw a child with type 2 diabetes, which used to be called adult-onset diabetes. Today, she regularly sees children with type 2 diabetes.
She has watched mothers in clinic waiting rooms feeding their toddlers baby bottles filled with soda, she added.
Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association, said the study confirmed evidence from previous studies of the benefits of soda taxes, and she urged the beverage industry to embrace the taxes.
“Spending millions to fight local citizens working tirelessly to improve their community puts the beverage industry on the wrong side of health and history,” Brown, who was not involved with the study, said in a statement.
The American Beverage Association downplayed the significance of the new study, saying the unique demographic profile of the Northern California city of Berkeley makes it a “challenging place to determine the true impact of a beverage tax.”