First tax on sugary drinks cut sales beyond expectations, study reveals

  • Berkeley, California, implemented the first US soda tax in March 2015
  • New study shows 2 areas have seen soda consumption drop by almost 25%
  • The findings come days before 4 cities consider a vote on the same policy
  • Medical groups have poured millions into campaigns to publicize the dangers of soda, which is one of the key drivers of obesity in poor areas
  • The American Beverage Association has spent billions defending itself

America’s first soda tax has cut consumption of sugary drinks beyond expectations, a new study reveals.

Berkeley voters in 2014 levied a penny-per-ounce tax on soda and other sugary drinks to try to curb consumption and stem the rising tide of diabetes and obesity. 

After the tax took effect in March 2015, residents of two low-income areas reported drinking 21 per cent less of all sugar-sweetened beverages and 26 per cent less soda than they had the year before.

The results, published in the October American Journal of Public Health, come days before voters in four US cities decide on whether to implement the same policy. 

America's first soda tax, in Berkeley, has cut consumption of soda beyond expectations

America’s first soda tax, in Berkeley, has cut consumption of soda beyond expectations

‘From a public health perspective, that is a huge impact. That is an intervention that’s more powerful than anything I’ve ever seen aimed at changing someone’s dietary behavior,’ senior author Dr Kristine Madsen said. 

The drop in sugary drink consumption was consistent with consumption declines in low-income neighborhoods in Mexico after it imposed a nationwide tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.

Nonetheless, Madsen, a professor of public health at the University of California at Berkeley, said it surpassed her expectations. 

The Berkeley results also pleasantly surprised Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University.

‘I hadn’t expected the effects to be so dramatic,’ she said in an email. ‘This is substantial evidence that soda taxes work.’

The soda industry has spent millions of dollars defeating taxes on sugary drinks in dozens of U.S. cities. 


Governments should tax sugary drinks to fight the global epidemics of obesity and diabetes, the World Health Organization declared this month.

Drinking fewer calorific sweet drinks is the best way to curb excessive weight and prevent chronic diseases such as diabetes, officials said.

To make that change they said all sodas and fruit juices should be 20 per cent more expensive.

The soda industry immediately hit back at the report, slamming the recommendations as ‘discriminatory’ and ‘unproven’.

Temo Waqanivalu, of WHO’s department of Noncommunicable Diseases and Health Promotion, said: ‘We are now in a place where we can say there is enough evidence to move on this and we encourage countries to implement effective tax on sugar-sweetened beverages to prevent obesity.’

Obesity more than doubled worldwide between 1980 and 2014, with 11 per cent of men and 15 per cent of women classified as obese – more than 500 million people.

The WHO report, ‘Fiscal Policies for Diet and Prevention of Noncommunicable Diseases’, did acknowledge that fat and salt also fuel obesity. 

However, it concluded thoughtless habit of including sodas in a standard diet is one of the most dangerous – yet preventable – activities.

The global soft drink market is worth nearly $ 870 billion in annual sales.

‘Smart policies can help to turn the tides on this deadly epidemic, especially those aimed at reducing consumption of sugary drinks, which is fuelling obesity rates,’ former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, a WHO ambassador for noncommunicable diseases, said. 

But the tax passed easily – with 76 per cent of the vote – in Berkeley. 

In addition to soda, the measure covers sweetened fruit-flavored drinks, energy drinks like Red Bull and caffeinated drinks like Frappuccino iced coffee. 

Diet beverages are exempt.

In June, the Philadelphia City Council enacted its own tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. 

The 1.5-cent-per-ounce tax is set to take effect in January, although soda trade groups have sued to try to block the measure.

Meanwhile, voters in Boulder, Colorado and the Bay Area cities of San Francisco, Oakland and Albany will vote on whether to tax their sugary beverages on November 8.

San Francisco voters also considered a soda tax in 2014, but it failed to garner a two-thirds majority needed for approval.

Public health officials and politicians point to the Berkeley study as proof of the power of an excise tax to wean residents of low-income neighborhoods off sweetened drinks.

‘The study is another tool highlighting how effective a tax on sugary beverages will be on changing the consumption rate,’ San Francisco Supervisor Malia Cohen told Reuters Health.

‘Just like tobacco, these are commodities we can live without that are killing us,’ she said. Cohen wrote the San Francisco ballot measure.

Researchers surveyed 873 adults in low-income commercial neighborhoods in Berkeley and 1,806 adults in similar neighborhoods in nearby San Francisco and Oakland before and a few months after imposition of the soda tax. 

Sweetened beverage consumption increased slightly in San Francisco and Oakland at the same time it dropped in Berkeley, the study showed. 

In Berkeley, water consumption spiked 63 per cent, compared to 19 per cent in San Francisco and Oakland, after the tax took effect.

The researchers attributed the surge in water consumption to a heat wave. But the American Beverage Association saw it as example of the study’s flaws.

In a statement, Brad Williams, an economist working for the trade group, criticized the research for using ‘unreliable and imprecise methodology’ and producing ‘implausible’ results.

The association’s criticism may hold grains of truth, Nestle said. But she largely dismissed it. 

‘Obviously, the ABA is going to attack the results. That’s rule number one in the playbook: cast doubt on the science,’ she said.

Public health experts believe soda helped drive American obesity rates to among the highest in the world. The U.S. spent an estimated $ 190 billion treating obesity-related conditions in 2012.

Diabetes rates have almost tripled over the past three decades, while sugary beverage consumption doubled.


Health | Mail Online