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New York Times Opinion Today by David Leonhardt on Soda Tax

Monday, July 10, 2017
New York Times
by David Leonhardt

Op-Ed Columnist

I’m guessing it has been a while since you’ve heard any honest-to-goodness encouraging news about government policy in the United States. Well, here goes:

The campaign to reduce the consumption of sugary drinks — which is probably the No. 1 cause of the obesity boom — continues to rack up victories.

Last month, the Seattle City Council passed a tax on soda and other sweetened beverages. Seattle joins Philadelphia, San Francisco, Oakland and Chicago, among others, as cities with such a tax (which typically exempts diet soda). A year ago, none of them had a drinks tax.

And the taxes work as intended, research has found. After Berkeley, Calif., put in place a tax in 2015, sales of sugary drinks fell almost 10 percent, according to a study published in the journal PLOS Medicine. Sales of water and other unsweetened beverages rose over the same period.

Dr. Thomas Frieden, who used to run the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told me that he thinks soda taxes are “likely the single most important way to protect people from obesity.” He added: “In my local supermarket, soda is cheaper than water. Until that changes, changing the calorie balance will be very difficult.”

Obviously, soda isn’t the only cause of obesity. Increases in portion size and a decline in physical activity, among other factors, also play a role. But soda is particularly important because of the scale of the consumption increase in recent decades and because soda calories are empty calories. Soda has no nutritional value. It’s colored sugar water, and it doesn’t even fill you up.

As you might imagine, Coke, Pepsi and their lobbyists continue to resist. They’ve made dishonest statements about the taxes and the academic research on them. They have offered alarmism about the economic effects of taxes, much as the tobacco industry has done over the years. In Philadelphia, the soda industry has also filed a lawsuit to undo the tax.

I assume the companies will continue to fight. But after years of preventing any local government from passing a tax, Big Soda is now losing more battles than it’s winning.

Seattle, for its part, didn’t only pass a tax; it passed a relatively large one, of 1.75 cents per ounce (which can equal about 20 percent of the price of a single-serving bottle). By comparison, the tax is 1 cent per ounce in Berkeley, San Francisco and Cook County, Illinois (which encompasses Chicago); 1.5 cents in Philadelphia; and 2 cents in Boulder, Colo.

Best of all, many people in those places are choosing not to pay the tax. Instead, they’re drinking less soda. So the taxes are improving public health without harming the budgets of low-income families.



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