Next month, voters in Berkeley and their neighbors across the Bay in San Francisco will go to the polls to determine whether their cities would be the first in the country to pass taxes on sugar- sweetened beverages. Berkeley’s “Measure D,” a 1-cent-per-ounce proposal, would mean a 50% cost increase for soda in the checkout lane. San Francisco’s two-cent-per-ounce “Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Tax Ordinance” could double the cost of a twelve-pack of soda. But the hit on their wallets is just one reason voters should pause before hitting the voting booth.
While supporters of taxes on sugar-sweetened drinks claim these ordinances would help combat obesity, perhaps the strongest reason to reject them is that the scientific data in fact do not support such taxes. First, key data shows the lack of a causal link between soda consumption and obesity. Sweetened drinks make up only about 5% of the calories Americans consume each day. Meanwhile, soda consumption has fallen for more than a decade, even as obesity rates.
Second, studies show that taxes like those proposed in California simply won’t work. A 2010 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, a peer-reviewed journal, revealed that taxes on sugar-sweetened drinks won’t impact the weight of those in higher- or lower-income brackets, and would have only a negligible impact on the weight of those in the middle class.
Finally, experience has demonstrated that taxes like the ones proposed in Berkeley and San Francisco create more unintended consequences than meaningful changes. In 2011, Denmark implemented a so-called “fat tax” on foods it said were linked to obesity. The tax demonstrated what studies have suggested would happen with taxes on sugar-sweetened drinks: it was a tremendous failure. The fat tax didn’t change eating habits. Shoppers just shopped elsewhere. Jobs soon followed. After the ouster of the conservative government just a year later, a new liberal government repealed the tax.
It may seem strange that a conservative government enacted this tax and a liberal government repealed it, but it’s a reminder that food taxes are a common-sense issue, rather than a partisan one.
Soda taxes should not be an issue of left versus right, nor of progressives versus conservatives. In November 2012, for example, voters in the liberal-friendly enclaves of nearby Richmond, CA, and El Monte, in southern California, voted to reject soda taxes very similar to those proposed in Berkeley and San Francisco.
Progressives want taxes that work. Conservatives want fewer taxes. Both want policies based on science. Both want healthy people. By any measure, these proposed beverage taxes won’t meet
So what can voters facing soda taxes like Measure D do? First, they can vote with their own wallets. Those who want to avoid buying sugar-sweetened drinks can and should do so. Those who think sugar-sweetened drinks are a bad choice should urge others to choose alternatives.
And Bay Area voters —like all Americans—should urge lawmakers in Washington to stop wasting taxpayer money on sweetheart deals for farmers who raise crops like corn and sugar. Congress shouldn’t force taxpayers to encourage, protect, or subsidize the production of inexpensive sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup (made from corn) and sugar.
Real problems need real solutions. A tax on sugar-sweetened beverages isn’t the answer.
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