Four American Cities Voted for Taxes on Soda Last Night

One step forward in tackling obesity in America

Eddie Welker via Flickr

The presidential election was at the top of the ticket yesterday, but this wasn't the only measure on the ballot. In an effort to help combat rising obesity and diabetes rates, four cities have voted for sodas and other sugary drinks to be subject to a new tax.

As of last night, three cities in California’s Bay Area (Oakland, San Francisco and Albany) joined Boulder, Colorado in a small but vocal group of cities experimenting with raising taxes on non-alcoholic, sugar-sweetened beverages like sodas, energy drinks, sweetened tea and sports drinks, Rachel Becker reports for The Verge. Soon, drink distributors in the three Californian cities will have to pay a new tax of one cent-per-ounce of these drinks they sell, while those in Boulder will pay a steeper charge of two cents-per-ounce.

That may not seem like much at first blush, but it has the potential of adding up over time. While the average soda-drinker might see the price of their drink go up by a few cents at the corner store, those pennies go far. According to Becker, these cities estimate the new taxes will bring in millions of dollars of annual revenue in the coming years, while potentially discouraging people from reaching for sugary drinks when they are feeling parched.

“This night goes to every single person I spoke to who told me their story about diabetes,” Joyce Ganthavorn, who spent the last year advocating for the tax in San Francisco and Oakland, tells Farida Jhabvala Romero for KQED Radio. “This victory goes out to them.”

That’s not to say these were easy fights: beverage industry giants like the Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo, Inc. and Dr Pepper Snapple Group, Inc. have spent tens of millions of dollars in recent years fighting these kinds of ballot measures, and this was no exception. While advocates for the new taxes poured more than $20 million into the fight, groups backed by retailers and the beverage industry spent at least $30 million on fighting these taxes at the ballot booth, Mike Esterl reports for the Wall Street Journal.

“I think they see this as very important for their future, and they are trying to make it clear to other cities and other states that might consider similar types of taxes that they are going to fight hard,” Jason McDaniel, a political science professor at San Francisco State University, tells Romero.

These cities aren’t the first to pass a tax on sugary drinks: In 2014, Berkeley, California became the first city in the nation to start taxing sodas more, with Philadelphia, Pennsylvania following suit earlier this year. However, with the beverage tax scheduled to hit the City of Brotherly Love on January 1, 2017, the beverage industry is pushing back and suing to keep it from being implemented, Becker reports.

“We respect the decision of voters in these cities. Our energy remains squarely focused on reducing the sugar consumed from beverages—engaging with prominent public health and community organizations to change behavior,’’ representatives of the American Beverage Association tell Esterl.

A tax on soda is far from a silver bullet in the fight against the obesity epidemic. The jury is still out on how much of an impact raising prices on sugary drinks has on obesity rates in the long term, and the beverage industry is continuing to pour millions into protecting its products. However, with other cities continuing to propose and consider levying taxes on sugary beverages, these are likely not the last soda taxes to come.

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