Has Berkeley's soda tax affected soda consumption?

Soda consumption in Berkeley has dropped by 21 percent, but is that a result of the soda tax, or increased health awareness?

Seth Perlman/AP/File
Sodas and energy drinks line the shelves in a grocery store in Springfield, Ill., on May 18, 2016.

Soda consumption is down in Berkeley, Calif., but whether that owes more to a soda tax or the public campaign around it is still under debate.

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley found that soda consumption has plummeted since the tax took effect in January 2015, with residents drinking 21 percent less soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages and 63 percent more water. In neighboring San Francisco and Oakland consumers are drinking 4 percent more soda, along with 19 percent more water. A similar soda tax measure failed to pass in San Francisco in 2014, but both Oakland and San Francisco will be voting on the issue this year.

"We are looking for tools that support people in making healthy choices, and the soda tax appears to be an effective tool," study senior author Kristine Madsen, an associate professor of public health at UC Berkeley, told Berkeley News.

The tax measure added an extra penny per ounce to all beverages sweetened by sugar, including soda, juice, and energy drinks, among others. The measure passed with overwhelming success in Berkeley, although it failed in several other California towns.

Researchers collected their data by interviewing Berkeley residents about their drinking habits both before and after the tax was implemented, polling more than 2,500 people across varying demographics. However, they focused on low-income neighborhoods, which "bear the brunt" of related public health problems, Dr. Madsen said.

Not everyone gives credit to the new tax. Some argue that the decrease in soda consumption was a result of the aggressive campaigning, which led to increased public health awareness.

“It’s possible that successful campaigning around the tax raised awareness of the health impacts of sugary drinks, which may have also shifted dietary choices in Berkeley,” study lead author Jennifer Falbe, a postdoctoral fellow at UC Berkeley, told SFGate. She added that future studies will clear up what contributed to the drop in soda drinking. 

Economists point out that the dramatic decrease suggests that both factors – the price and the health benefits – played a role.

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

The American Beverage Association (ABA) disagrees. The organization, which vehemently opposes soda taxes, told SFGate that this study was flawed since it depended on interviews with pedestrians on the street. The ABA defeated the 2014 attempt to institute a soda tax in San Francisco, and has already spent $545,000 on campaigns against the 2016 ballot question.

So far, only Philadelphia has joined Berkeley in passing a soda tax, which will take effect in June 2017. Voters and lawmakers will decide on similar measures this year in San Francisco, Oakland, Illinois, and Colorado.

[Editor's note: The original article gave incorrect information about the vote on a soda tax in Oakland. The vote is coming in November.]

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to Has Berkeley's soda tax affected soda consumption?
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today