Soda Industry Campaigns Early—and Hard—Against Soda Taxes

Predictably, it's fudging the facts.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Apr 1, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

San Francisco residents aren’t scheduled to vote on a proposed soda tax until November, but the soda industry has already gone on the attack. Earlier this month—a full eight months before polls open—S.F. voters began receiving glossy mailers decrying city hall’s efforts to impose a 2-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary beverages, somehow tying the issue to San Francisco’s shortage of affordable housing.

“Rising cost of living. Escalating Rents. Impending Evictions. What is city hall’s plan?” reads the outside of the flier, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Open it up to find the purported answer: “A big new tax on beverages that will raise our grocery bills? Seriously?”

The flier was technically paid for by Stop Unfair Beverage Taxes—Coalition for an Affordable City, but go to the group’s website, and you see it’s underwritten by the American Beverage Association, the soda industry’s big lobbying organization.

Soda taxes are to the ABA what assault rifle bans are to the NRA, so it’s no surprise that the group has launched a super-aggressive, early-bird campaign in San Francisco, nor is it surprising that it would glom on to the economic insecurities of the rapidly gentrifying city as a reason to vote against the tax. Never mind that most sane people would readily admit that sustaining your soda habit is hardly the same as being able to pay your rent.

If that logic is shaky at best, the ABA is also taking the issues of health and junk food taxes head on. What's similar here, however, is the way the association twists the results of a recent University of Wisconsin–Madison study on its blog, which crows, “We Can’t Tax Our Way to Better Health.”

“It’s nonsense to think that government can legislate healthy lifestyles,” the post reads. “We’ve seen more evidence to support this fact recently with a new study…[that] found there is no support for the claim that a soda tax will improve health….”

Is that what the study, which was published last week, actually says? The headline on the UW–Madison press release sums it up differently: “Soda Tax Does Little to Decrease Obesity, Study Shows.”

True, that's not exactly shout-it-from-the-rooftops news for soda tax proponents, but it’s worth pointing out that “does little” isn’t the same as “doesn’t.”

Over at The Huffington Post, Jeff Ritterman more or less makes the same point: “Actually, despite using data that is eight years old and evaluating extremely weak soda taxes of a mere 3 percent, the researchers found that soda taxes ‘have a statistically significant impact on behavior and weight,’ meaning people consumed less soda and lost weight. It's just that the impact was small.” Hence, "little."

And this was just one study.

Here’s what the ABA wasn’t talking about on its “Sip & Savor” blog: The results of another, potentially more damning soda tax study released last week. As Pacific Standard reports, researchers in the Netherlands found that a 12 percent increase in the price of sugar-sweetened drinks “significantly” decreased the purchase of those beverages—by an average of 30 ounces per household per week. Even more important, consumers didn’t appear to substitute other sugary treats for the missing soda calories. The study may be small—it included 91 participants—but the results are in line with a 2010 study from Harvard that measured a 26 percent decline in sugary soft drink consumption after the price was hiked 35 percent in one hospital cafeteria, compared with another cafeteria where the price remained unchanged.

But we may not even have to rely on academic studies to tell us whether soda taxes have the power to curb the public’s appetite for beverages that, time and again, have been linked to obesity and other public health ills. Last week also brought news from soft drink makers in Mexico that, thanks to the one-peso-per-liter tax on sugary drinks the government began collecting this year, production is expected to fall by as much as 7 percent.