American Cities Are Starting to Win the Battle Against Soda

Philadelphia is taxing sugary beverages to raise money for education programs, but there are undeniable public-health upsides to the policy.
(Photo: Paul Burns/Getty Images)
Jun 14, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Against steep odds and unrelenting opposition from the powerful beverage industry, Philadelphia is poised to become the second—and largest—U.S. city to adopt a sugary-drinks tax on Thursday. Most Americans could be forgiven for wondering whether that’s a good thing—after all, industry front groups like the American Beverage Association have spent millions of dollars to fight these kinds of taxes. Soda groups poured $4 million into Philly to oppose the measure, and that’s on top of the more than $8 billion a year companies such as Coke and Pepsi spend on advertising.

When you stop to think about it, that’s a staggering amount of money to spend marketing products that have come to be seen as practically inextricable from our national identity—more American in some ways than apple pie. They wouldn’t seem to need so much advertising to fuel their popularity. But apparently it takes a lot of cash to sustain the illusion that there’s something happy, wholesome, and innocent about guzzling down copious amounts of glorified sugar water, and obscuring that such liquid candy is Americans’ leading source of empty calories and a prime culprit behind our runaway obesity crisis (latest headline: “40% of U.S. Women Are Now Obese”).

It’s soda makers’ nonstop barrage of feel-good advertising that arguably contributes to the public’s unease about soda taxes. When a soda company equates its flagship product with, say, friendship—as in Coke’s wildly successful “Share a Coke” campaign—taxing soda comes to feel just plain “wrong” in the public mind, like requiring a permit for your backyard barbecue or charging a toll for kids to run through sprinklers.

Put that way, it seems downright amazing that Philadelphia could even be on the verge of passing its 1.5-cent-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages and that other cities, such as Oakland, California, and Boulder, Colorado, are forging ahead with campaigns to pass such taxes as well. It might not be easy, but it goes to show you that good ideas can prevail over the big money spent by companies to protect their own self-interest.

Taxing sugar-laden beverages is a good idea, no matter the beverage industry’s disingenuous attempts to tar such taxes as regressive “grocery” taxes targeting low-income families and small businesses. A wide consensus of medical and public health experts advocate taxing sugary drinks—including the American Medical Association, the American Heart Association, the Institute of Medicine, and the World Health Organization—while independent analyses have routinely confirmed that imposing a soda tax is among the most cost-effective ways to combat the country’s burgeoning obesity epidemic.

The tax on the table in Philly is half of what Mayor Jim Kenney initially proposed, although it will still be higher than the country’s only other municipal soda tax, the 1-cent-per-ounce tax in Berkeley, California. Had the Philadelphia City Council adopted Kenney’s original 3-cent-per-ounce proposal, it would have prevented an estimated 36,000 cases of obesity over the course of 10 years, according to an analysis prepared by researchers working as part of the nonprofit Childhood Obesity Intervention Cost Effective Study—CHOICES—which is affiliated with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. For every dollar spent implementing the tax, there would have been a savings of $84 in health care costs.

A separate CHOICES study looking at a possible 1-cent-per-ounce nationwide soda tax found that such a tax would cut consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages by 20 percent while yielding more than $23 billion in health care cost savings. A team of researchers at Columbia University and the University of California, San Francisco, also found the benefits of a 1-cent-per-ounce tax far outweighed the cost, preventing an estimated 95,000 heart attacks, 8,000 strokes, and 26,000 premature deaths over the course of a decade as well as cutting the risk for diabetes and saving some $17 billion in medical costs.

In light of all that, countering big soda’s multibillion-dollar marketing juggernaut with a penny-per-ounce tax—or more—on the industry’s demonstrably unhealthy products comes to seem like something of a no-brainer.