In 1998 when the Center for Science in the Public Interest published “Liquid Candy: How Sugar Drinks Are Harming America’s Health,” the prospect of a major U.S. city enacting a soda tax was hardly to be contemplated. Our most adventuresome recommendation was that state and local governments “should consider” taxes, and we suggested an exceedingly modest two cents per 12-ounce.
Last week, Philadelphia’s City Council, with the leadership of Mayor Jim Kenney who proposed the tax, has levied a 1.5-cent tax per ounce on sugar drinks and diet sodas. Moreover, more taxes are on the horizon as advocates in cities like Boulder, San Francisco, and Oakland gear up for ballot initiatives later this year. Illinois advocates are slogging it out in the legislative trenches.
So, what has changed, and what hasn’t?
First, consumers are already voting against Big Soda with their buying and consuming habits. In March, the trade publication Beverage Digest reported its annual consumption numbers, and they showed that per-capita consumption of full-calorie soda (and energy drinks) has declined some 27% since its peak in 1998. Despite the industry’s marketing juggernaut, more and more Americans get it that they are essentially being sold sugar water. In short, the soda industry no longer has the public on its side.
What the industry continues to have is an open wallet to buy consultants – from both sides of the aisle as needed, depending on a particular jurisdiction’s political leanings – as well as advertising and astro-turf, pop-up coalitions. Even with financial support from public-health philanthropists, it appears that Big Soda outspent the soda tax supporters by more than 3 to 1 in Philadelphia when the final accounting is done.
Second, the science has changed: It has only gotten stronger about the harms of sugar drinks. The evidence linking excessive consumption of sugar drinks to increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and tooth decay has grown. In fact, the increased recognition of the health harms of added sugars in our diet has finally led the Food and Drug Administration to include a line for “added sugars” on the new Nutrition Facts panel. It will be instructive to see what the soda industry does now that its 20-ounce drinks are going to be labeled as having between 125% and 130% of the daily value of added sugar anyone should be consuming. Think 15 or 16 teaspoons of sugar in 20 ounces of water!
What the industry continues to have is a bad case of scientific denial. Although Coca-Cola was badly burned last year when its funding for the Global Energy Balance Network was exposed, the industry continues to trot out “calorie balance” as the answer to our obesity epidemic and be unwilling to acknowledge the already substantial scientific evidence pointing to the contribution of sugar drinks to serious health problems. In fact, in a recent ruling in San Francisco on that city’s efforts to require warnings on sugar-drinks advertising, a federal judge cited the industry’s own expert in ruling that the warning – “WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay. This is a message from the City and Council of San Francisco.” -- was “factual and accurate.”
Finally, when soda taxes were a mere glimmer in the eyes of public health advocates, the rationale offered for them was to reduce consumption and thereby the burden of soda-related diseases, especially on the communities most affected. Today, that remains an important benefit of a soda tax. However, there is also a growing recognition that cities and states have many unmet needs that require increased funding. Many of those needs – like Philadelphia’s pre-K expansion and rebuilding the parks and recreation centers – are, in fact, public health needs just like diabetes and obesity prevention programs.
What the industry continues to display is an astonishing arrogance and resistance to letting communities decide for themselves what is in their best interest. Some things never change.
Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D., is co-founder and president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a nonprofit health advocacy organization.