Is ‘Big Soda’ On the Run? Taxes on Sugary Drinks Make Headway

Seven U.S. urban centers have already enacted such measures to help curb obesity

One of the least publicized – and for health advocates, most welcome – outcomes of the 2016 U.S. election was the passage in numerous cities of legislation supporting taxes on sugary sodas. 

Voters in San Francisco, Oakland and Albany, California, as well as those in Boulder, Colorado, and Cook County, Illinois (which includes Chicago) pushed through ballot initiatives that would (on average) add about one cent per ounce to the cost of these calorie-rich, nutrient-poor beverages.

Similar measures were already in place in Philadelphia and Berkeley, Calif., bringing to a total of seven the number of U.S. urban areas that have passed such initiatives since 2014.

This trend could have real implications in the fight against cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, obesity is, “clearly linked with cancers of the breast (in postmenopausal women), colon, uterine lining (endometrium), esophagus, kidney and pancreas, and may be linked to other tumor types as well.”

Long derided by the beverage industry as intrusive “nanny taxes,” surcharges on soft drinks may now be gaining ground among Americans, proponents say.

“There’s a momentum with these taxes that will be hard for the industry to stop,” Kelly Brownell, dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, told The New York Times.

Brownell, who was met with ridicule when he proposed a tax on “junk food” back in 1994, now believes that in “a year or two from now the taxes will be widespread.”

It wasn’t always so – billionaire and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg famously lost a legal battle to establish a soda tax in that city in 2012.

So, why the recent wins at ballot boxes? Experts credit the turnaround to a canny repackaging of soda taxes as resources to fill empty city coffers, rather than scolding tools aimed at bettering citizens’ health.

For example, last year Philadelphia’s Mayor Jim Kenney successfully pushed for a soda tax by promising it would raise much-needed revenue for the city’s prekindergarten classes. In other cities, soda taxes have passed after being pitched as revenue-generating initiatives to help with education, public safety or deficit reduction.

Proponents have also taken cues from the decades-long fight against Big Tobacco, pointing to the declines in smoking that occurred as cigarette prices edged ever upwards. They’ve even co-opted the language of those campaigns, branding beverage companies as “Big Soda.”

“Big Soda” is fighting back, of course. The American Beverage Association, an industry trade group, spent $38 million opposing the November 8 soda tax ballot proposals, to no avail. And Susan Neely, the ABA’s president, said that she’s not convinced the initiatives will find success beyond largely liberal cities.

“I just don’t see this discriminatory, regressive tax being embraced by Iowans or Midwesterners or Southerners and others in a large swath of the country,” she told the Times. “I just do not believe that this is going to be a tax sweep throughout America.”

Do soda taxes put a dent in soft-drink consumption?  Another country’s recent experience suggests they do. In 2013, Mexico imposed federal taxes on sugary drinks, and sales soon began to fall – especially among lower-income groups that tend to consume the highest amounts of sweetened drinks.

In any case, America’s love affair with high-calorie sodas may be on the wane, especially among the young. 

As reported in the last issue of Cancer Prevention, in June the U.S. Centers for Disease Prevention and Control released a report on the nutrition habits of 15,000 high school students nationwide. Among the findings: “There was a significant decrease in drinking soda one or more times a day – from 27 percent [of high school students] in 2013 to 20 percent in 2015.”