Soda Tax Myths: Soda Taxes Distract from Real Issues

by Dana Woldow on February 4, 2014

When the American Beverage Association talks about soda taxes, they always trot out the same old arguments – that such taxes are regressive, falling hardest on poor folks, or that they are job-killers, or that they don’t work to reduce obesity. With a proposed 2 cents per ounce tax on sweetened drinks coming before the SF Board of Supervisors this week, the ABA has been highlighting its silliest argument yet. It’s the “Government can’t walk and chew gum at the same time” claim – that when a city has “real” problems like housing, transportation, crime, or unemployment (and what city doesn’t?), lawmakers shouldn’t be “distracted” by proposals to tax sugary beverages.

That’s exactly the line of reasoning pushed by a group in San Francisco calling themselves The Coalition for an Affordable City. “At a time when San Franciscans are tackling issues like public safety, homelessness, education, and the growing affordability gap—why is city government focused on a beverage tax?” asked a campaign that ran on their Facebook page in mid January. “The last thing we need is a tax that makes it even more expensive to live and work in San Francisco.”

The page made it clear, albeit in fine print, who is behind the effort: “Paid for by the American Beverage Association, member of Stop Unfair Beverage Taxes – Coalition for an Affordable City.”

The argument echoes a similar concept put forth by Californians for Food and Beverage Choice, another front group for the ABA, that last fall told the Huffington Post “Californians have rejected beverage taxes like the one San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener proposes because such measures are unnecessary, wasteful distractions from serious policymaking.”

But as New York Times OpEd columnist Mark Bittman responded when I shared those arguments with him, “Public safety? Taxing soda will have as big an impact on public health as did taxing tobacco. Sugar-sweetened beverages are essentially the tobacco of the 21st century.”

Registered dietitian Andy Bellatti, MS, RD, says, “It’s ludicrous and insulting to put homelessness, education, and public safety on the same level as a soda tax. Shelter, education, and safety are basic human needs; soda is not.”

Supervisor Wiener, who along with 3 colleagues plans to bring the soda tax proposal before the SF Board of Supervisors on February 4, told me:

“Given government’s long and effective track record of using tax and other public policy tools to improve public health, including seatbelt and child seat laws, pollution and food safety regulations, and taxes and education to reduce smoking, it’s pretty specious to suggest that we are somehow “wasting our time” by focusing on products — sugary beverages — that have no nutritional value and that are directly causing a spike in diabetes among adults and children. Improving public health is one of government’s most important functions.”

Labeling concern over the consumption of excess sugar, and its resultant impact on the health of citizens of all ages, as “wasteful” and “unnecessary” reveals a serious denial by the ABA of both science and economics.

ABA position ignores science

Type 2 diabetes has been directly and repeatedly linked with consumption of sugary beverages; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that type 2 diabetes accounts for about 90% to 95% of all diagnosed cases of diabetes in adults.

The American Diabetes Association says, “Diabetes causes more deaths a year than breast cancer and AIDS combined. Two out of three people with diabetes die from heart disease or stroke.”

What’s more, “the risk for death among people with diabetes is about twice that of people of similar age but without diabetes” and “the risk for stroke is 2 to 4 times higher among people with diabetes”, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services, which also identifies diabetes as the leading cause of new cases of blindness among adults ages 20-74 and the leading cause of kidney failure, as well as causing nervous system damage, amputations, dental disease, and many other health complications.

That’s the science that the beverage industry would like us all to ignore when it claims that government focus on sugary drink consumption is “wasteful” and “unnecessary”, but what about the economics?

ABA position contradicts economics

The American Diabetes Association released research in March 2013 showing that nationwide, the costs of diagnosed diabetes had reach $245 billion in 2012, up 41% from the last time such costs were calculated in 2007. Costs included both medical expenses and lost productivity.

As the most populous state, California not surprisingly carries the largest per-state share of the burden, with costs of $27.6 billion.

Add in the costs associated with obesity and the total goes even higher. Jeff Ritterman, MD, and Dr. Harold Goldstein, executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, wrote recently in the Huffington Post:

“Soda and its cohort of sugary beverages distinguish themselves as the single largest contributor of added calories to the American diet since the obesity crisis began some 30 years ago – responsible for more than 40 percent of those additional calories. It is the impact of those soda calories that necessitates government intervention. Weight gain has transformed our nation, leading to a doubling of diabetes cases and more people with heart attacks, hypertension and some cancers. The cost of all this – nearly $53 billion a year in California according to a 2009 study by the California Center for Public Health Advocacy — is too large to ignore, especially for a government that has to shoulder a major share of those costs.”

A helpful table included in the study Ritterman and Goldstein cite shows that obesity-related costs in San Francisco alone already topped $1 billion in 2006.

A billion dollars a year, just in San Francisco.

Kind of gives new meaning to that ABA term “wasteful”, doesn’t it? Kind of feels like doing something to stop this is not “unnecessary”, but instead “vital”.

Expert: taxes could go national

The “Soda taxes are an unnecessary and wasteful distraction” argument contradicts known science and economics, but food policy expert and NYU Professor Marion Nestle knows why the ABA tries to make it fly. She told me in an email:

“It’s obvious why the ABA, which represents Coke and Pepsi, will go to any lengths to prevent soda taxes. They might work. Sales of full-sugar sodas have been declining in the United States for the past few years as the word gets out about how they affect health. Soda companies know they are an easy target: their products contain sugars–lots of sugars–but nothing else of nutritional value. If a leading city like San Francisco imposes a tax, other cities will be sure to follow and the next thing you know the tax will go national. So the ABA could care less about the cost or ethics of opposing the tax. Or, for that matter, about the effects of sodas on public health.”

The soft drink industry may not care about the costs or ethics of opposing a soda tax, but government and business should care. Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, explains:

“Governments and businesses are struggling under the weight of skyrocketing healthcare costs, three-quarters of which are due to chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Our best bet to address this fiscal burden is to help keep people healthy in the first place, putting into place measures that can help people avoid disease and disability.”

So rather than being a “distraction” from the “real” business of government, moving forward legislation on soda taxes is exactly what our government leaders should be doing. As Mark Bittman wrote in a November 2013 opinion piece on Mexico’s new sugar and junk food taxes, “There could hardly be a more important and legitimate role for government than attending to the health and well-being of its populace.”

Read other articles in the Soda Tax Myths series:
Soda Tax Myths: Are Beverage Companies Friends to the Poor?

Soda Tax Myths: The Arkansas Argument

Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at Follow her on Twitter @nestwife.

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