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Why France now bans unlimited soda refills

Five years after passing a soft drinks tax, France now forbids unlimited refills of sugary drinks.

McDonald's employees serve a meal containing a large soda in New York in June 2012. Starting Friday, France now bans free unlimited refills on sugary drinks.
Mary Altaffer/AP Photo/File
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Five years after passing a tax on soft drinks, France now officially bans unlimited refills of sugary drinks across the country.

Aiming to fight obesity, France’s new all-you-can-drink ban is the latest move amidst a growing global trend, as cities and countries try to reduce overconsumption of sweetened drinks. In the United States, however, where several cities have tried to impose soda taxes, such attempts have faced a difficult fight.

“We're definitely seeing more interest in taxing sugary sweet beverages both in the United States and around the world, as there's a growing awareness about the health consequences of overconsumption of sugary sweet beverages,” Julie Aoki, the director of healthy eating and active living at the Public Health Law Center in St. Paul, Minn., tells The Christian Science Monitor.

The new regulation, which was adopted in April 2015 as part of a larger public health law, went into effect on Friday. France has already had a tax on sweetened beverages since 2012. The law intends to further the government’s fight to limit obesity and related problems, particularly among young people.

The mandate states that it will be illegal to sell any drinks with added sugars or sweeteners on an unlimited basis, either for a fixed price or for free. In addition to soda, some other affected beverages include flavored non-carbonated soft drinks, sports drinks, and energy drinks.

Following the order, soda fountains at school cafeterias, hotels, and restaurants will no longer be available.

A 2014 Eurostat survey shows that 15.3 percent of France’s adults are considered obese, just below the average of 15.9 percent across the European Union as a whole, and much lower than the 36.5 percent obesity rate in the United States.

The new French law, the first of its kind in the world, is in line with the recommendations from the World Health Organization (WHO). In October, the WHO, an agency of the United Nations, urged countries around the world to raise taxes on sugary drinks by 20 percent to reduce their consumption as a way fight obesity and health issues that have been tied to obesity. 

Some countries have already implemented similar propositions. Mexico, with one of the highest rates of obese adults in the O.E.C.D., introduced a roughly 10 percent “soda tax” in 2014. Britain, where about 25 percent of the adult population is labeled obese, is introducing a sugary drinks tax in 2018.

Yet, as the popularity of taxing sugary drinks spreads around the world, it has met with much resistance in the United States. Opponents of such laws call them government obtrusion into consumers' personal choices, and question the effectiveness of these taxes.

In June, when Philadelphia's City Council gave approval for its 1.5 cent-per-ounce tax on sugared beverages, the American Beverage Association released a statement calling the move "discriminatory and highly unpopular."

"The tax passed today is a regressive tax that unfairly singles out beverages, including low- and no-calorie choices," the association said.

In Mexico, at least, the tax may be working to reduce the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages. Researchers identified a 6 percent decrease in the sale of sugary beverages in 2014; by the end of the year, that had grown to 12 percent. Meanwhile, sales of bottled water were up by 4 percent. 

In the November 2016 election, four US cities passed new soda taxes (San Francisco, Oakland, Calif., Albany, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., ), bringing the total to seven US cities with a soda tax. Berkeley, Calif., was the first US city to pass a sugary drinks tax in 2014, and a 2016 study showed that consumption of soda fell 21 percent in low-income neighborhoods.