Health advocates suffered a blow this month when county commissioners in Chicago voted to repeal the city's controversial soda tax after it had been in effect for only two months. Anna Lappé and Christina Bronsing-Lazalde state in The New York Times that "the soda industry won big" after spending "millions on TV and radio ads" to defeat Chicago's sugar tax.
Proponents of the soda tax often cite public health as their primary concern. With obesity on the rise, it's not surprising that soda taxes are gaining momentum.
There has been evidence that soda taxes reduce consumption of sugary drinks, and cities which have implemented the tax usually put the money raised into health and nutrition programs.
As a peer-reviewed study published this spring found, since the tax went into effect in Berkeley, Calif., in March 2015, purchases of healthier drinks have gone up and sales of soda have gone down, all without consumer grocery bills increasing or the local food sector losing money. The tax raised about $1.5 million last year for nutrition and health programs in a city of 113,000 people.
But "big soda" has dumped loads of money—an estimated 37.6 million in 2016 alone—into the fight against the soda tax, creating "faux grassroots organizations" and engaging in a "coordinated war" similar to the one waged by the tobacco industry decades ago.
This war, waged by the American Beverage Association and sugary drink manufacturers like Coca-Cola, includes a slew of duplicitous tactics, like funding research to give a hue of legitimacy to their anti-tax claims, pursuing social media influencers, lobbying at every level of government and targeting key journalists for persuasion. These time-tested tactics have been used by the tobacco industry in its fight against cigarette taxes.
But other feel Chicago's recent decision to end its soda tax if proof that individuals value their personal freedom over a tax on sugary drinks. Jonathan S. Tobin writes in the National Review that the soda tax is just an extension of the left-wing "nanny state" forcing "Americans to give up their guilty pleasers" by acting as "the food-and-drink police."
The 15–1 vote in Cook County illustrated just how unpopular the measure was. The law was billed as both a health measure to address a national obesity epidemic and a fiscal move to support the county’s hospitals, clinics, and intervention programs... [But] the notion of elites seeking to change the dietary habits of middle- and working-class citizens by picking their pockets to fund pet projects, however well-intentioned they might have been, created a backlash.
Tobin also argues the soda tax disproportionately impacts poor people, who can't easily access or afford healthier drink options.
The idea behind a soda tax is that it will decrease soda consumption, raise revenue, or both. But people aren’t necessarily the hostages of their local nannies: Many are capable of shopping in neighboring jurisdictions where soda prices are lower [...] inner-city residents who can’t easily shop in the suburbs have been made to understand the regressive nature of the tax. In Santa Fe, poorer Hispanic districts voted even more heavily against the soda tax than did white upper-middle-class areas.
Critics also point out soda consumption in the U.S. is already on the decline, so why force the decision on Americans who already appear to be making healthy choices for themselves? According to Bloomberg, soda consumption hit a 31-year low in 2016, and Americans have begun buying bottled water at a higher rate.
But supporters of a soda tax still argue that soda poses a serious health risk. According to Akshat Rathi in Quartz, the U.S. leads the soda-related death toll, but on a per capita basis poorer countries suffer the most.
The United States led the death toll, with 25,000 annual deaths linked to sweetened drinks in 2010, but it’s low- and middle-income countries that get hit the hardest, accounting for 75% of global soda-related deaths. On a per capita basis, Mexico had the highest death count, 405 per million adults. Mexico consumes far more soda per person than any country in the world.
The argument that soda taxes hurt the poor is nothing compared to the rate of soda-related deaths among poor countries.
The soda tax continues to be a point of friction for many, with even Joe Maddon referencing it in an interview.
Joe Maddon really hates something called the SODA tax.