On Tuesday, November 4th, Americans across the country headed to their local voting stations to decide the shape of local governments and of Congress. In California, voters in the cities of San Francisco and Berkeley were faced with an equally-important decision: Should we impose the nation’s first-ever tax on soda and other sugary drinks? In Berkeley, the voter response was a resounding “YES!”
The “soda tax,” as it’s been dubbed, will impose of a penny tax for each ounce in a container – or 12 cents per can of Coke – and is viewed by health care professionals and advocates as a crucial first step in reigning-in America’s escalating sugar-related health problems, from tooth decay to diabetes and obesity. Sugar and high-fructose corn syrup-sweetened beverages are the primary source of extra sugar in American diets; not only is this added sugar directly linked to disease, it’s also costing Americans lots of money.
Kelly Brownell, Dean of the School of Public Policy at Duke University, says the “support for soda taxes is part of the recognition that disease related to diet is costing the country huge amounts of money.” In response to claims that food and beverage taxes infringe on citizens’ freedoms and are examples of Big Government meddling in private affairs, Brownell argues that a large percentage of the costs of diabetes and obesity fall to taxpayers through government health insurance programs Medicare and Medicaid. Because the decisions of unhealthy Americans increase public costs, he claims, government involvement is justified. “It’s no different than the tobacco tax.”
The food industry, for its part, did everything possible to sink the initiative. In Berkeley, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and other soda companies spent an estimated $30 per voter attempting to defeat the soda tax. An ABC News investigation even discovered a Craigslist post which promised to pay $13/hour to anyone willing to march around carrying signs opposing the measure. In all, food companies and the American Beverage Association, their lobbying group, spent over $60 million battling proposals linked to Americans’ diets during this midterm election. This “throw money at it” tactic has been effective in curbing new bans and taxes thus far; at least 30 cities and states across the country have attempted such a “soda tax,” and all have failed. That is, until now.
Naysayers questioning the efficacy of taxes to influence consumer behavior need only look to Mexico. To combat skyrocketing diabetes cases, the country enacted a tax on soda, as well as on other unhealthy products, in January, 2014. By summer, total consumption had fallen by ten percent.