The Hidden – and Not So Hidden – Benefits of a Soda Tax

by Allen D. Kanner, Ph.D.

Robert Goizueta, Coca Cola’s CEO from 1981 -1997, had a grand vision for the world: by the early 21st century, people would drink more Coke than water. A few years later, in 2001, CEO Douglass Daft unveiled an installable tap that automatically mixes Coke syrup with water to make the soda directly available from the kitchen faucet, a technology right in line with Goizueta’s global ambitions.

To date, soda has not overtaken water as the world’s largest source of hydration, in part because soda companies now also sell vast amounts of bottled water at astronomical profits. Even so, in 2014, an expected 52 billion gallons of carbonated beverages will be produced, a veritable ocean of soda pouring down our collective gullets; this figure rises annually. In the tradition of Goizueta and Daft, today’s industry executives are undaunted by the fact that sugary sodas are a major health hazard – a unique, contributory cause of the ballooning type 2 diabetes crisis, along with its associated complications and illnesses.

The fight against Big Soda is about our kids’ health.

Just as the tobacco industry did with cigarettes, soda companies go to great lengths to target vulnerable populations. A good chunk of soda advertising is aimed at children and teenagers. The result in the U.S. is that soda provides teenage girls with about 10 teaspoons of sugar daily and teenage boys with about 15 teaspoons. Low-income communities and communities of color, which proportionately consume more soda than other communities, are also major targets of ad campaigns. The CDC estimates that one third of all children, and nearly one half of African American children, will be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in their lifetimes.

This tax focuses on Big Soda

How can society protect itself from this extremely effective marketing onslaught? For both straightforward and subtle reasons, this is where a soda tax comes in.

This is a tax on industry, on the distribution of sugary beverages into Berkeley. Distributors will decide whether to pass the cost along to businesses and consumers. Should they increase the price of their products – and this is the straightforward effect – the additional cost could reduce soda consumption by encouraging people to select healthier, cheaper options. Coca Cola just reported a “mid-single-digit” reduction in sales following a new tax on sugary beverages that was introduced in Mexico this past January. San Francisco’s city economist predicts a 31% reduction in soda consumption if a two-cents-per-ounce tax passes this November.

Second – and this is the subtler but likely even more powerful effect – an industry-focused tax acts as a kind of “anti-soda” public health campaign. People understand that product-specific taxes are levied only when a substance is causing a great deal of harm, with no end in sight. This understanding can contribute to a major cultural shift in our perception of soda, moving it from cool and fun to uncool and self-destructive. Just such a shift has occurred with tobacco in the last few decades.

As cities, states, and countries implement soda taxes, more and more people will realize that “things go better” when we don’t guzzle 52 billion gallons of sweetened carbonated beverages every year. Berkeley citizens can play a leading role in promoting this trend by voting yes for the proposed one-cent per ounce soda tax on November 4th.

Allen D. Kanner, Ph.D., is a Berkeley child, family and adult psychologist and co-founder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC).

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As of January 2017, Berkeley’s soda tax has generated more than $2.5 million for community nutrition & health efforts, including school garden programs.