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In Berkeley, Soda Tax Is Doing What It's Supposed To Do

Wednesday, October 04, 2017
Forbes
by Bruce Y. Lee

When Berkeley, California, in November 2014, became the first city in the United States to pass a sugar-sweetened beverage (SSB) tax (and San Francisco did not), some soda tax advocates were worried. After all, Berkeley was not the ideal location for a "great soda tax experiment." With many eyes on this experiment, an unsuccessful experiment had the potential of being a high-profile setback. However, a study just published in PLOS Medicine lends further evidence that the SSB tax is doing what it is supposed to do.

What exactly is the one-cent-per-ounce tax, implemented in March 2015, supposed to do? Adding a tax to SSBs makes buying them a bit more expensive, which may tilt a thirsty individual towards drinking water instead, especially if the individual is short on cash. While soda and other SSBs are not the only causes of the ongoing childhood obesity epidemic, drinking beverages high in added sugar and calories certainly isn't helping. In addition to changing behavior, a SSB tax could provide additional revenue to the city. The soda industry fought the SSB tax in Berkeley and San Francisco, claiming that the tax is intrusive and will disproportionately affect lower-income people. Thus, in 2014, the push for an SSB tax succeeded in Berkeley but failed in San Francisco.

At the time, the San Francisco defeat disheartened many SSB tax advocates. With its size, diverse population and standing as a prominent city, San Francisco would have been a major victory. By comparison, Berkeley is relatively small (certainly compared to San Francisco), 17 square miles in area and just over 116,000 in population, meaning that residents could readily travel to adjoining towns that didn't have a soda tax to buy soda. Also, compared to San Francisco, Berkeley has a much smaller lower-income population and potentially fewer people who use cost as a deciding factor of whether to drink soda.

Soda tax advocates worried that the size of Berkeley would inhibit the tax's effectiveness (Photo: Shutterstock)

In just a couple of years since the San Francisco defeat, my, have times changed. Six locations have since passed SSB taxes, including San Francisco. A study published last fall in the American Journal of Public Health showed that SSB consumption decreased by 21% and water consumption increased by more than 63% in Berkeley after the SSB tax. And now for the PLOS Medicine study, researchers from the Public Health Institute (Lynn D. Silver, Suzanne Ryan-Ibarra and Marta Induni) and the Carolina Population Center at the University of North Carolina (Shu Wen Ng, Lindsey Smith Taillie, Donna R. Miles, Jennifer M. Poti and Barry M. Popkin) found that one year after the SSB tax was introduced, SSB sales fell in Berkeley by 9.6% and rose in surrounding areas by 6.9%. Meanwhile, sales of water in Berkeley jumped by 15.6%.

Does this mean that the same effects will be seen elsewhere? Potentially. The American Beverage Association claimed in a statement that "Berkeley’s relatively small size, high median income and low baseline consumption rates make it a challenging place to determine the true impact of a beverage tax–unlike Philadelphia, where the tax has led to significant job losses and economic hardship for working families. This study does, however, confirm that sales of taxed beverages inside the city declined while sales of those same beverages outside the city increased, which is also what is happening in Philadelphia." On the other hand, with Berkeley being less than ideal for such an experiment, effects could be greater elsewhere.

Again, SSB taxes are not the cure-all for childhood obesity. There are numerous other causes of the childhood obesity epidemic, such as the food that kids are eating, their lack of physical activity and other systems around them. As Louise Codling, head of policy and public affairs at World Cancer Research Fund, stated: “It is encouraging to see that the tax in Berkeley effectively reduced purchases of sugary drinks. We hope that this encourages similar taxes to be introduced in more places around the world, however this is just one part of the multi-faceted approach needed to tackle the obesity epidemic." Moreover, will the SSB tax effects persist over time or will people get used to the higher prices?

Follow me on Twitter @bruce_y_lee and visit our Global Obesity Prevention Center (GOPC) at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Read my other Forbes pieces here.



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