While it was once thought that efforts to tax sugary drinks could not overcome the powerfully connected and well-financed beverage industry, the last eighteen months has seen local public health movements gain momentum as cities pass sugary drink excise taxes.
The negative health effects of sugary drinks have long been known. As far back as the early 2000s, a series of groundbreaking studies showed that consumption of products like soda, fruit drinks, and sports drinks was a significant contributor to weight gain among the American public and had led to variety of health impacts including high blood pressure, higher cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.
The long-term effects of these health conditions are enormous, especially among children and adolescents who, by the mid-1990s, were consuming more sugary drinks than milk. According to the CDC, obesity and being overweight are now the second leading cause of preventable death in the United States, quickly closing the gap with the number one cause—tobacco use.
But efforts to use one of the key tools that was effective in reducing tobacco use to reduce the consumption of sugary drinks – increasing the price through tax increases - were elusive. Starting in 2008, dozens of local efforts to tax the beverages in cities like New York and Philadelphia rose up but then failed, due in large part to the massive lobbying and the seemingly bottomless campaign war chest of the beverage industry.
In 2014, we finally saw progress when voters in Berkeley, California, became the first city in the country to pass a tax on sugary drinks. The one-cent-per-ounce tax revenue is used to fund nutrition and health programs. Then in 2016, after two previous failed attempts, Philadelphia became the second US city to pass a sugary drink tax. The city’s tax of 1.5-cents-per-ounce will be used to fund programs such as citywide pre-K education and improving parks, recreation centers and libraries.
The wins in Berkeley and Philadelphia made it possible for other cities to consider similar taxes. Advocates adapted their approaches; they learned from previous campaign failures and successes.
Eric Batch, vice president of government relations for the Western States Affiliate of the American Heart Association, says that November 2016 ballot initiatives in Albany, San Francisco, and Oakland, California, were successful, in part, because advocates learned from prior campaigns and adjusted their tactics and messaging.
“The campaigns were very intentional about who the voices and faces leading the initiatives were … advocates also made a powerful argument to consumers that in purchasing sugary beverages, and especially for working families, that spending limited resources on products that are bad for you, is much more expensive in the long run in terms of the diseases to which they contribute – far more expensive than a penny per ounce tax” he said.
As in past efforts to tax sugary drinks, the beverage industry poured massive resources into trying to defeat the ballot initiatives. In California alone it was estimated that they spent approximately $30 million, making it one of the most expensive locally based ballot initiatives in that state’s history.
The beverage industry attempted to portray the tax increases as a grocery tax, spending millions on television and newspaper ads, on social media, and on direct mail campaigns, claiming that the tax would hurt “working families.” But Batch says that those claims quickly fell apart when the campaigns urged voters to follow the money - and in this case, only the beverage association was spending money opposing the tax. If it were truly a grocery tax, there would have been other interests opposing it.”
But that was not the only progress, change was happening around the country. In Boulder, Colorado, voters passed Measure 2H, a 2 cents-per-ounce sugary drink tax that will fund programs geared towards improving access to healthy foods and beverage options. In Cook County, Illinois, population 5.25 million, the County Council approved a penny-per-ounce sweetened drink tax that would have raised $200 million in revenue to support community needs for residents and visitors but was later reversed.
In Seattle, the beverage industry also opposed efforts to get the city council to pass a sugary drink tax, recruiting retailers and union members to argue that the tax would affect jobs and profits.
Lindsay Hovind, senior director of government relations for the American Heart Association in Seattle and one of the sugary drink tax campaign’s leaders, says the opposition was able to be overcome because of the opportunities the tax provided.
“The tax created a two-fold opportunity,” she says. “The tax itself would improve health by reducing consumption of sugary drinks, and by strategically investing the revenue raised it would improve access to healthy food and reduce disparities in education.”
Those two factors, coupled with a broad base of support among health, education and social justice groups, and a strong champion city councilmember, resulted in the tax being approved by the city council with a 7 to 1 vote.
Carter Headrick, director of state and local obesity policy for American Heart Association, said that the negative health impacts of soda and sugary drinks are becoming more known among policymakers and the American public alike. In fact, a September 2017 POLITICO-Harvard poll found that 57 percent of respondents supported taxing soda and other sugary drinks to raise money for preschool and children’s health programs and to help address the problem of weight-related diseases.
Headrick sees the recent sugary drink tax victories as creating other tax opportunities in other cities and potentially even at the state level. “Momentum for sugary drink taxes is really growing – it clearly shows the beginning of a national movement,” he said.