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Souring On Sweet? Voters In 4 Cities Pass Soda Tax Measures

Nov 9, 2016
Originally published on November 16, 2016 5:46 am

Voters in three cities in California passed ballot measures to place a one cent-per-ounce tax on sodas and other sugar-sweetened beverages, a move aimed at tackling obesity.

In San Francisco, 62 percent of voters cast their ballots in favor of the tax on sugary drinks. Similar measures passed in Oakland and Albany, Calif. In addition, the city of Boulder, Colo., passed a 2 cents-per-ounce tax.

"The growing worldwide movement to tax sugary beverages can no longer be stopped," wrote Harold Goldstein, executive director of Public Health Advocates in a release today. Goldstein pointed to the World Health Organization's recent report calling on nations around the globe to tax sugary drinks.

As we've reported, after Berkeley, Calif., passed a tax on sugary drinks, one study found that consumption of sugary drinks dropped by about 20 percent. And, after Mexico imposed a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages in 2014, researchers documented a decline in sales.

The CEO of the American Heart Association touted the passage of the soda tax measures as a big win for public health.

"We applaud voters for rejecting the big spending and false arguments of outsiders and standing up for what they knew was right for their community," wrote Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association, in a statement today.

"From sports drinks to sodas to fruit-flavored drinks, today's children are drinking their age in these sugary drinks each week. Reducing consumption will improve rates of diabetes, heart disease and tooth decay," Brown concluded.

The American Beverage Association, which represents all the big soda brands, led the effort to oppose the soda tax measures. The group spent upwards of $9.5 million on a ad campaign, dubbed "Don't Tax Our Groceries."

"Voters in the Bay Area have made a decision, and we respect their decision," Susan Neely, CEO of the American Beverage Association, told us by phone.

But she says taxes are not the best way to pursue the public health objective of tackling obesity. "Consumers don't want these taxes ... and we think there's a more effective way to go about it," Neely says.

"We are deeply and publicly committed to reducing calories and sugar from our beverages," Neely explains, pointing to a pledge to a 20 percent reduction by 2025.

Neely explains that the industry has partnered with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation to work in communities with high rates of obesity to try to change the behaviors of people who may be getting too many calories from sugar-sweetened beverages. Currently, the group has efforts underway in Alabama and Mississippi, as well as communities in the Bronx and Brooklyn, N.Y.

"We're doing a double-down to try to change behavior to reduce [consumption of] calories and sugar from our beverages," Neely told us. Some of the efforts include offering taste tests and coupons for lower-calorie and zero calories options.

Other strategies include a billboard campaign, Balance What You Eat, Drink & Do," aimed at nudging people to think about the calories they're consuming. The industry is also working with retailers to place lower-calorie options at eye-level, so that consumers may be more likely to notice them.

Neely says she doesn't agree with public health advocates who argue that there's growing momentum for soda taxes. "I just don't see middle-class tax increases spreading across the country. I don't think there's support by people, and I don't see this as a movement."

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This recent election was a sweeping victory for soda taxes. Voters approved them in all four cities where they were on the ballot. NPR's Allison Aubrey says these taxes are meant to reduce obesity.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: The idea that a tax on sugary drinks could help communities tame their collective sweet tooth is about to be tested. Now that voters in San Francisco, Oakland and Albany, Calif., as well as Boulder, Colo., have approved a tax on sugary drinks, the cost of a 12 ounce can of soda could rise about a dime. Nancy Brown, the CEO of the American Heart Association who's been advocating for these measures, says this is a big win for public health.

NANCY BROWN: We do believe that a tax on sugary beverages will reduce consumption.

AUBREY: In the weeks before the vote, public health groups were on the ground and on the airwaves in the Bay Area. They made the case to voters that the amount of sugary drinks Americans consume, especially kids, is leading to a health crisis. Here's a testimonial from a physician Anthony Iton.

ANTHONY ITON: Thirty years ago, we didn't see 8-year-olds with diabetes. These days, you see hundreds of them. The soda companies are pushing this product. And these kids are highly vulnerable and they're getting sick.

AUBREY: The American Beverage Association, which represents all the big players in the soda industry, worked hard to try to defeat the taxes. And the group's CEO, Susan Neely, argues there's a more constructive way to combat obesity.

SUSAN NEELY: We are deeply and publicly committed to reducing calories and sugar from our beverages. We put a metric out there and committed to a 20 percent reduction of calories and sugar from our beverages by 2025.

AUBREY: And, Neely says, the industry has introduced more low and zero-calorie options to help meet this goal. But this will not fend off the push for more soda taxes. The American Heart Association says there are efforts underway in Alabama and Illinois. And the World Health Organization has urged governments around the globe to tax sugary drinks. Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.