On Monday, Seattle became the eighth US municipality to push back against big soda when its city council voted 7-1 for a 1.75 cent-per-ounce tax on sugary drink distributors.
Before Berkeley, California, passed America’s first soda tax focused on health in 2014, lawmakers in 40 cities and states had tried — and failed — to put their own in place.
Now eight municipalities are dinging consumers who want to buy sugary drinks — and five of them passed soda taxes in the past year alone. Here they are:
- Berkeley, California
- Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
- San Francisco, California
- Oakland, California
- Albany, California
- Boulder, Colorado
- Cook County, Illinois (the county that includes Chicago)
- Seattle, Washington
Altogether, this means nearly 9 million Americans are or will soon be living with soda taxes aimed at reducing consumption. (There were soda taxes prior to 2013 but they were very small and mainly focused on revenue generating, not health. For that reason, public health officials and researchers consider Berkeley the first soda tax in the US.)
This is a major shift from just a few years ago. In a 2012 study, University of Minnesota health policy researcher Sarah Gollust found that only 22 percent of Americans favored a soda tax to curb consumption. Now lawmakers even in very conservative states like West Virginia are considering penny-per-ounce excise taxes in the midst of the nation’s obesity crisis. (Santa Fe, New Mexico, is the only city to consider a tax recently and decide against one.)
“The political tides are shifting,” said Gollust.
The Seattle tax, which is expected to take effect in July, exempts diet drinks. Advocates’ victory comes after local health advocates began reframing the debate about soda taxes to focus more on the revenue they’d help cities win and less on the public health gains they may carry. It also comes after billionaire philanthropists — including Michael Bloomberg and Laura and John Arnold — started pouring millions into pushing back against beverage makers and helping city officials make their case for public health.
Preliminary research suggests the taxes work — they do seem to curb soda drinking.
“Cities have figured out that soda taxes do great things,” said Marion Nestle, a New York University professor who wrote the book Soda Politics. “They discourage consumption of sugary drinks, and they raise revenues for health promotion programs. I’m not surprised that so many cities are considering them — they can all use the money — and everyone would be healthier keeping sugary drinks to a minimum.”
Soda taxes are one of the more promising tools for curbing obesity
Health researchers have known for years that high-calorie, nutrient-poor beverages such as soda have been major contributors to the obesity epidemic. They give people big, quick doses of sugar with little accompanying nutritional benefit or satiety.
The basic idea behind sugary drink taxes is this: These beverages are a modifiable component of the diet, and making drinks like soda more expensive through taxation might help reduce consumption, improve awareness of the health harms they carry, and nudge people to choose lower- or no-calorie beverages instead.
Other jurisdictions, such as the United Kingdom, Mexico, and, again, Berkeley, already have similar taxation schemes in place. They each work a little differently, but they share a common goal: to raise the price of sugary beverages to drive down the amount people drink and, in turn, reduce the rate of obesity.
Data from Mexico and Berkeley — where taxes have been implemented in 2013 and 2014 — have shown declines in sales of sugary drinks. In Mexico, in particular, the reduction was greatest among low-income households, which also happen to be the groups most affected by obesity, according to a study published in BMJ in January. A new study on Berkeley, published in PLOS Medicine, found a 10 percent decline in soda sales one year after the tax was imposed.
Soda taxes aren’t a panacea
But soda taxes have real limitations in fixing a problem as complex as obesity.
For one, the taxes usually don't apply to all caloric drinks that people love. In the UK, for example, pure fruit juices and sweet milk-based drinks, which can have just as much sugar as soda (or more), won't be taxed. So consumers will still have options that are potentially cheaper, but still calorie-dense, once the tax is imposed, said Roland Sturm, a senior economist and professor of policy analysis at RAND.
The taxes typically only add a few cents' cost to a beverage. "Don’t expect small taxes to make a big splash in reducing obesity," Sturm said.
It’s also hard to disentangle the impact of taxes from the overall trend in declining rates of soda consumption. In the US, for example, soda consumption has been dropping since the late 1990s. In Berkeley, "consumption rates were low to begin [much lower than the national average] … so measuring a further decline won’t be easy," Nestle said.
What's more, sugary drinks are only one source of added dietary sugar, and taxes on them haven't yet been linked to marked health improvements, said Shu Wen Ng, an associate research professor in nutrition at the University of North Carolina who co-authored the BMJ paper. "It will be a while before we expect to see health effects — like weight change, metabolic changes — as these changes require persistent changes over time to occur."
But they carry some pretty incredible benefits
Even if soda taxes don't immediately change health, researchers say they do carry other benefits.
The money raised from the taxes can be used to support other obesity-fighting policies and raise revenue for cash-strapped communities.
In Berkeley, revenue from soda taxes goes to children's health programs in low-income areas that are battling particularly high rates of childhood obesity. Philadelphia’s tax is funding an array of community and education initiatives, including universal pre-kindergarten classes and new community schools. Seattle’s tax will also raise revenue aimed at increasing access to healthy food and reducing education disparities.
Soda taxes have also encouraged companies to change their manufacturing practices by offering more lower- and zero-calorie options.
Finally, they can raise awareness about the health harms of drinking what is essentially nutrient-bankrupt liquid sugar. "Taxes generate a vast amount of media discussion of the effects of sugary drinks on health," Nestle pointed out.
Taxes also help shift social norms, said Sturm. Consider tobacco: Increasing the price of cigarettes through taxation was one of the biggest contributors to driving down the smoking rates.
"Smoking rates didn't drop immediately, and taxation had a small effect on consumption immediately," he said. But eventually the taxes had an effect, "and with fewer people smoking … it becomes less acceptable to smoke, so it was a feedback loop." He said the same could happen with soda consumption.
The same is happening with the soda, Gollust said. “One way to change public opinion is to pass policies, as we saw with large increases in public support for smoking restrictions and tobacco taxes over the last decade once those policies took hold across the US.” It looks like soda may be following suit.