Photo: Gael McKeon (file photo)
A new UC Berkeley study shows a 21% drop in the drinking of soda and other sugary beverages in Berkeley’s low-income neighborhoods after the city levied a penny-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. Photo: Gael McKeon

By Yasmin Anwar / Berkeley News

In a sign that taxes can work in the fight against obesity, a new study from the UC Berkeley shows a 21% drop in the drinking of soda and other sugary beverages in Berkeley’s low-income neighborhoods after the city levied a penny-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.

While Berkeley, the first U.S. city to pass a “soda tax,” saw a substantial decline in the consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks in the months following implementation of the tax in March 2015, neighboring San Francisco, where a soda tax measure was defeated, and Oakland, saw a 4% increase, according to the study published today in the American Journal of Public Health.

Read more about the Berkeley soda tax.

“Low-income communities bear the brunt of the health consequences of obesity and diabetes, so this decline in soda and sugary beverage consumption is very encouraging,” said study senior author Kristine Madsen, an associate professor of public health at UC Berkeley. “We are looking for tools that support people in making healthy choices, and the soda tax appears to be an effective tool.”

Moreover, Berkeley residents surveyed for the study reported a 63% increase

in drinking bottled or tap water while their Oakland and San Francisco counterparts reported only a 19% rise in water consumption. Only 2% of the Berkeley residents polled reported that the tax led them to shop for sugary drinks in neighboring cities that do not have a soda tax.

“Not only was the drop in sugary drink consumption in Berkeley greater than we expected, the apparent shift to less harmful products like water is a very good sign,” Madsen said.

The “Berkeley vs. Big Soda” campaign, also known as Measure D, won in 2014 by a landslide 76%, and was implemented in March 2015. It covers such soft drinks asCoca-Cola, Sprite, and Dr. Pepper, sweetened fruit-flavored drinks, energy drinks like Red Bull and caffeinated drinks like Arizona iced tea and Frappuccino iced coffee. Diet drinks and sodas are not subject to the tax because they use sugar substitutes.

To conduct the UC Berkeley study, researchers surveyed residents in low-income, high-foot-traffic commercial areas of Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco. Neighborhoods were selected to achieve a racially and socioeconomically diverse sample.

They polled more than 2,500 people aged between 18 and 94, one-third of whom were interviewed before the tax was passed, and two-thirds of whom were interviewed one year later, a few months after the tax was implemented. The street intercept surveys, which were conducted in English and, if needed, in Spanish, lasted three to 10 minutes.

Overall, the results suggest that a general excise tax coupled with a public-awareness campaign can have major benefits.

“While Berkeley is just one small city, this is an important first step in identifying tools that can move the needle on population health,” Madsen said.

The excise tax is paid by distributors of sugary beverages and is reflected in shelf prices, as a previous UC Berkeley study showed, which can influence consumers’ decisions.

This latest UC Berkeley study focused on the short-term impact of the soda tax on consumption and cannot tell whether the post-tax decline was due to higher retail prices or a greater awareness of the health consequences of sugary drinks, which include obesity, diabetes, heart disease and tooth decay.

“It’s possible that successful campaigning around the tax raised awareness of the health impacts of sugary drinks, which may have also shifted dietary choices in Berkeley,” said study lead author Jennifer Falbe, a postdoctoral fellow at UC Berkeley.

Dr. Pepper Snapple Group is one of multiple distributors frustrated by the lack of guidance from the city of Berkeley over the soda tax. Photo: Eric Lynch
Dr. Pepper Snapple Group is one of multiple distributors affected by the soda tax. Photo: Eric Lynch

Representatives of the American Beverage Association, which spent $2.4 million to defeat Berkeley’s soda tax, told the San Francisco Chronicle they doubted the results of the study.

Brad Williams told the paper that man-on-the-street interviews do not show the real story since researchers are asking two completely different groups of people.

Future studies may help distinguish between the impact of increased prices versus awareness, Falbe said.

In Berkeley, the tax is intended to support municipal health and nutrition programs. To that end, the city has created a panel of experts in child nutrition, health care and education to make recommendations to the City Council about funding programs that improve children’s health across Berkeley. The council has allocated about $1.75 million so far, with $637,500 going to BUSD nutrition programs, $250,000 going to  the school district’s  popular cooking and gardening program, and another $637,500 to community agencies seeking grants designed to reduce consumption of sugary drinks, and address their effects.

More than two dozen U.S. cities have attempted to pass soda taxes, and failed. In June, Philadelphia became the second city in the nation to pass a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks. Philadelphia’s tax, which will take effect in January 2017, will also include diet drinks. San Francisco, Oakland and Boulder, Colorado, are looking into getting soda-tax measures on the ballot this year.

Berkeley’s 21% decrease in sugary beverage consumption compares favorably to that of Mexico, which saw a 17% decline among low-income households after the first year of its one-peso-per-liter soda tax that its congress passed in 2013.

In addition to Madsen and Falbe, co-authors of the study are Hannah Thompson, Christina Becker and Nadia Rojas, all of UC Berkeley, and Charles McCullough of UC San Francisco.

A version of this story first appeared on Aug. 22, 2016 in Berkeley News. Additional reporting by Berkeleyside.

Council approves $1.5M to fight soda consumption (01.20.16)
Soda tax brings needed cash to gardening program (06.08.15)
Berkeley’s new soda tax panel begins its work (05.20.15)
Soda tax raises $116,000 of revenue in first month (05.18.15)
A record $3.6M spent in Berkeley campaigns (11.03.14)

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