Berkeley’s Soda Tax: Not as Sweet as Expected?

by Ally Gallop

Berkeley’s soda tax, or Measure D, adds 12 cents to the cost of a can of soda. The overarching intent of taxing sugar-sweetened beverages is to help lower rates of overweight and obesity. But issues with how Measure D is implemented and what exactly it taxes are misleading.

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Photo Credit: Ally Gallop

As a registered dietitian, I see food fads come and go. First it was trans fat, then gluten, kale, fancy Himalayan salts, and now sugar. More specifically: sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs). SSBs are mainly composed of water, sugar, coloring, and flavoring agents. They hold little to no nutritional value besides providing calories and hydration and are an easy public health target, as increases in sugar intake since the mid-1960s have paralleled the rising obesity epidemic.

In the fall of 2013, Mexico passed a bill enacting a 10% tax on SSBs. Compared to the same quarter the previous year, SSB purchases declined by 10%. Fast-forward to November 4, 2014 and Berkeley, CA became the first U.S. city to approve a soda tax with three-quarters of voter support. Also known as Measure D, the tax adds $0.01 per fluid ounce or 12 cents to a can of non-diet soda. Mirroring the anti-tobacco campaign, depleting one’s wallet to improve the public’s health may be an effective strategy.

In the eyes of Big Soda, Berkeley does not represent small town America. Roughly 30 similar bills have failed across the U.S., even in forward-thinking New York City. Despite the $11 million the American Beverage Association invested in trying to defeat Measure D and San Francisco’s similar Proposition E, Roger Salazar, a Big Soda lobbyist, voiced no concern after the election about future bills being passed. He said Berkeley’s 117,000 residents are unique: they’re extremely liberal, tend to act as mobilizers for change, and as of 2011, 19% of Berkeley’s Alameda County adults were obese, compared to the 2014 national average of 34.9%.

Though Measure D sounds like a great idea (especially to students of nutrition and public health), it may prove problematic.

Problem 1: Who Pays the Tax and Where Does it Go?

On the same voting day in San Francisco, a city directly across the bay from Berkeley, the similar Proposition E was rejected. San Francisco’s bill was focused: it proposed that all taxes collected were to go towards anti-obesity programs for low-income, high-risk communities. The targeted outcome meant that at least two-thirds of voter support was required. The bill garnered only 55%. Alternatively, Berkeley’s Measure D only required a majority vote, as the tax was unfocused. The collected taxes would be added to the city’s communal fund. However, written into Measure D was the formation of a panel of experts to provide opinion on how the money should be spent to improve child health moving forward.

Unlike Mexico, where the tax is added at the point-of-sale, Berkeley’s will be applied to the distributor. Individuals trying to quench their thirst will not be directly taxed at the cash register. Proponents state that taxing the distributors makes it easier to collect the money, since the tax will be added to their business license fee. Also, since Measure D’s main target is industry, the logic follows that distributors — being closer in the food system (than consumers) to industry — are an ideal taxing target. Finally, proponents say it’s difficult to collect taxes at the retail level, yet Mexico has seen great success with retail level taxation.

Generally, raising the cost of a product poses a decision: buy the product, buy less of it, or decide against the purchase completely. Yet, in spite of the tax, stores may not even raise soda prices, since the additional cost could be distributed across a store’s entire inventory.

This possibility is problematic for two reasons. First, if the majority of a family’s food is purchased from a store that also sells SSBs, is it fair to increase the cost of groceries to cover the store’s sales? Second, if the retail cost of SSBs doesn’t increase, then there is no targeted disincentive. So, will implementing Measure D really deter the individual?

Problem 2: The Need for Sugar Will Remain

Back in the 1950s when the tobacco industry was at its peak, 44% of Americans smoked. Six decades later, less than one-quarter do. Though there may be some parallels, unlike tobacco everybody consumes sugar. Have you checked the ingredient list of your 100% whole grain bread lately? Malt syrup. What about your pasta sauce? Glucose-fructose. How about those organic, fair trade, whole grain, high fiber, flaxseed crackers? Agave syrup. All of these are code for sugar, and all of these are examples of how widely sugar has infiltrated our foods.

Magnetic resonance images of the brain’s rewards center shows that the response to drugs and sugar are the same. Sugar has also been deemed an addictive substance: consuming sweet foods has similar side effects as addiction, including bingeing, withdrawal, and craving.

It’s not as easy to remove sugar from the food system or one’s diet as it may seem. Simply asking the American population to cut its sugar intake is like asking drug addicts and chronic smokers to quit cold turkey. Yet, sugar is more ubiquitous and tolerated in our obesogenic environment.

During the low-fat craze of the 1980s and 1990s, removing fat from food greatly affected the flavor, smell, and mouth-feel. Industry knew this. So when the fat was removed, sugar was added. Similarly, Measure D does not tax diet sodas, so the market for diet sodas may increase, as sugar could easily be replaced with low- or no-calorie replacements. These options are much lower in calories, so in theory, levels of overweight and obesity should also decrease. Or should they?

Large epidemiological studies have shown that weight gain is correlated with diet soda intake. These results are consistent with both prevalence and longitudinal studies and are seen in both children and adults. For instance, per the Growing Up Today Study, for every can of diet soda consumed, young boys had an increase in body mass index of 0.16 kg/m2. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Growth and Health found that it didn’t matter if adolescent girls drank regular or diet soda: over a 10-year period, they gained more weight compared to girls who omitted both from their diets.

The science suggests that whether the sweetness comes from a calorie source or not, a sweet taste on the tongue stimulates the human appetite. Regardless of the source, it encourages sugar dependence. If we reduce SSB intake, the obvious replacement won’t be water—it will be diet sodas. Will this really make us better off?

So, What Now?

As of right now, the public and proponents of Measure D aren’t seeing eye-to-eye. The public may view Measure D as a means of fighting overweight and obesity. Alternatively, proponents aim to deter distributors from purchasing SSBs and industry from producing them.

In the following years when Measure D’s effectiveness is evaluated, there may be confusion over what outcomes should be measured. Is purchasing power most important? Do rates of overweight and obesity matter most? Or, will tax revenue determine Measure D’s success?

The low-fat craze led the public to replace higher-fat foods with refined carbohydrates. Experts admit being naïve in thinking Americans would replace high-fat items with fruits and vegetables.

In Measure D’s case, we cannot expect people to drink water in the place of soda. Due to sugar’s addictive nature, sweet will likely be replaced with sweet. Public health messages about the downside of sugar replacements and why sugar and sweetness lead to weight gain need to be implemented.

Overall, Popkin and Nielsen (2003) said it best when they wrote that “unsweetening the world’s diet may be the key to reversing the obesity epidemic.”

Ally Gallop, BSc, RD is a Certified Diabetes Educator and is studying towards an MSMPH focusing in nutrition interventions, epidemiology, and health communication. She prefers Americanos to soda any day.

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