- Consumption of soda and sugary drinks plunged by 21% in lower-income neighborhoods of Berkeley, CA, after the city became the first in the U.S. to pass a sugary beverage tax, which went into effect in March 2015, according to a study published online in the American Journal of Public Health.
- The American Beverage Association cites flaws in the study, saying that street surveys and relying on personal recollections are unreliable data sources. The organization claims there is no indication the tax has measurably impacted public health in the area.
- Also potentially skewing the results is the focus on low-income neighborhoods. Researchers chose these areas because obesity and diabetes rates are higher there, and increasing prices can more significantly impact consumers' purchasing decisions.
In the same time frame, similar survey-based studies showed that soda consumption rose 4% in low-income neighborhoods of San Francisco and Oakland. As soda consumption dipped in Berkeley between April and August 2015 compared to pre-tax 2014, bottled water consumption increased 63% while rising only 19% in San Francisco and Oakland.
These numbers are critical because San Francisco and Oakland are two of several cities with sugary beverage taxes of their own appearing on upcoming ballots. Philadelphia approved a 1.5-cent-per-ounce tax in June, and Boulder, CO, is considering a 2-cent-per-ounce tax. As proposed soda taxes become more common, these types of studies could influence voters and legislators in terms of a tax's perceived efficacy in improving public health.
But ABA has a point: Around the same time Berkeley's soda tax took effect, the World Health Organization released its own recommendations for sugar limits, followed later by the FDA and 2015 Dietary Guidelines. The survey data does not make the exact reason why consumers are drinking less soda clear. It also does not show if the tax impacted low-income neighborhoods more than the fact that consumers in general are drinking less soda for health reasons, taxed or otherwise.
Supporters have also positioned these taxes as a way to boost a city's financial health, which was the case in Philadelphia. As more taxes appear on the ballot, manufacturers and industry groups fighting them may have to adjust the conversation to finding other means for city budget improvements.