Is the war on soda working?

As more cities consider “soda taxes,” companies and retailers have pushed back against the measures they say place unfair burdens on their businesses. But proponents say the taxes can fund vital city-run programs.

Jeff Chiu/AP/File
Soft drink and soda bottles are displayed in a refrigerator at El Ahorro market in San Francisco.

Voters in four cities across the United States will decide whether or not to levy a tax on sugary beverages as part of a growing movement that advocates say will encourage consumers to choose options with a greater nutritional value.

As additional cities have begun to float the idea of a “soda tax,” big companies and local retailers have fired back, arguing that the initiatives unfairly target their industry while ignoring other potential food industry risks and saddle low-income consumers with an undue burden. Lawmakers and advocates say the tax can help to fund vital city efforts, like universal preschool and community health programs, and will help to curb sugar intake. While some 40 proposed measures failed in the past, Berkeley, Calif., and Philadelphia have both recently implemented sugary beverage taxes. Still, the long term impact of those laws remains unclear.

On Tuesday, Boulder, Colo., and San Francisco, Oakland, and Albany in California will decide whether or not to approve a two-cent per ounce tax in Boulder and three-cent per ounce tax in the California cities. The controversial taxes have divided businesses and health advocates and become some of the most expensive campaigns in the states, costing more than $1 million in Boulder and an estimated $50 million in San Francisco and Oakland combined.

“It was intense and expensive, and folks were amazed in talking about it,” Dan Newman, a political consultant with SCN Strategies, a company working on the pro-tax campaign, told The New York Times of the similar 2014 effort in midterm elections. “And it was nothing like this.”

While widely nicknamed as “soda taxes,” the initiatives would also impose the fees on sweetened teas, energy drinks, and beverages with added sugars. They would exclude juice products, milk products, diet soda, infant formula, and most alcohols.

Those advocating for the taxes say they encourage buyers to cut back, citing a 21 percent decrease in consumption in Berkeley. That drop was larger than economists had predicted.  

"It makes complete sense that, when prices go up, people buy less,” John Cawley, a professor of public policy and economics at Cornell University, told NPR earlier this year. “That's the law of demand. So I did expect to see some kind of decrease in consumption, but this is a very large decrease."

Still, others aren’t sure if the decrease comes from a reactive response to the tax, and say sales could level off over time. Opponents of the measures, like Matthew Moseley, a spokesman for the campaign against the Boulder tax, said past initiatives are “expensive, regressive and are proven not to work.”

“Boulder is already consistently ranked one of the healthiest cities in America, and it wasn’t because of taxes,” he told the Denver Post.

Philadelphia’s tax, which proponents say will help fund university preschool for the city’s children, passed through the city council in June and is slated to launch next year. There, where the poverty rate hovers just about 25 percent, some have criticized the tax as an unfair burden on low-income buyers, who purchase the beverages at the highest rates of any group.

“It would make much more sense to finance universal preschool in Philadelphia by raising taxes on its wealthiest residents who currently benefit from flat state and city tax rates,” Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont wrote in an op-ed for Philadelphia magazine while campaigning for the Democratic nomination. “Mayor [Jim] Kenney deserves praise for emphasizing the importance of universal pre-kindergarten. But at a time of massive income and wealth inequality, it should be the people on top who see an increase in their taxes, not low-income and working people.”

The question has become one of what role lawmakers play in dictating Americans choices: Should officials punish those who choose sugary beverages with an additional tax that is in some ways punitive, or take a step back and allow the capitalist market more freedom?

While many disagree on that point of contention, Americans have begun to move further away from the beverages on their own as attitudes toward the food industry shift. In 2014, 63 percent of those in a Gallup poll said they tried to avoid sodas in their diet, up from 41 percent in 2002.

That, experts say, shows a push away from sugary beverages that isn’t mandated by regulation, but instead encouraged by a growing trend toward awareness.

“There will always be soda, but I think the era of it being acceptable for kids to drink soda all day long is passing, slowly,” Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University, told the Times last year. “In some socioeconomic groups, it’s over.”

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