The Soda Tax Works! It DOES Shrink Sugary Drink Consumption

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Soda taxes have been controversial... but it seems they’re paying off, and not just financially: The consumption of sugary drinks has fallen 52 percent in areas of Berkeley, California with a high proportion of low-income residents — a population shown to drink a lot of sweetened bevs — since 2015, when the city’s “penny per ounce” tax on sugar-sweetened beverages was enacted. This study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, is the first to examine the longer-term impact of soda taxes in the United States.

Having to pay more for sugary drinks — which are associated with a higher risk of tooth decay, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease — has led to another boon: guzzling more water. City residents are drinking 29 percent more water than they did before the tax, say the University of California, Berkeley researchers, proving soda taxes are an effective tool for encouraging healthier habits. Interestingly, the 52 percent decline seen through 2017 more than doubles the 21 percent drop that occurred during the first year of the soda tax in Berkeley.

The debate about soda taxes, which are actually levied against distributors but usually passed on to consumers, continues. Philadelphia and Seattle also have implemented taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages, but California and Washington passed bills in 2018 prohibiting cities from enacting future soda taxes. In Berkeley, soda tax revenue supports nutrition education, school gardening programs, and community organizations that encourage healthy lifestyles.

At the University of California, Berkeley, researchers have been monitoring beverage consumption in low-income neighborhoods since 2014 by polling about 2,500 people a year at intersections in racially diverse areas with a high volume of foot traffic. In addition to Berkeley, they also conduct research in areas of Oakland and San Francisco. They observed the steep decline in all sugary drinks, including soda, sports drinks, sweetened teas, and specialty coffee drinks. In California, this drop was unique to Berkeley, until Oakland and San Francisco enacted their own soda taxes in mid-2017 and 2018.