Buried under the headlines of the recent controversial election is a big public health win for five U.S. cities. On Election Day, voters in Boulder, Colo., approved a two-cents-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB). Voters in three California bay area cities – San Francisco, Oakland, and Albany – also voted in new soda taxes, set at a penny per ounce. Later in the week, the Cook County board in Illinois approved a penny-per-ounce tax affecting over five million residents, including those living in the city of Chicago and surrounding suburbs.
These public health victories came despite heavy industry lobbying. According to Bloomberg, the American Beverage Association spent $20 million to oppose the measures. This spending was countered by philanthropists committed to advancing public health, including $18 million from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and a reported $3.3 million from John and Laura Arnold.
The recent rise in successful SSB tax initiatives marks a potential sea change for legal efforts to reduce SSB consumption. Previous legal efforts targeting SSBs had repeatedly failed to gain public support. Earlier soda tax proposals in New York state, Washington state, Vermont, Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco all failed – sometimes repeatedly. An alternative approach – New York City’s attempted “portion cap,” a measure to limit the size of sodas to 16 ounces – also failed after being struck down in court.
Why have newer initiatives been successful? One potential explanation is a shift in framing. Prior efforts traditionally focused on the public health harms of soda. While the health issues associated with soda are well-documented, efforts to discourage soda consumption were frequently painted as examples of the “nanny state” run amok. According to critics, government shouldn’t influence what adults choose to eat or drink.
More recently, some local governments have taken a different approach: presenting soda taxes as a way to fund popular programs. For example, in promoting a successful soda tax in Philadelphia earlier this year, Mayor Jim Kenney pitched soda taxes as a way to fund universal preschool. In Chicago, the tax was framed as a way to address a projected $174.3 million budget shortfall for 2017, while providing funding for anti-violence programs.
The recent successes may also signal a shift in Americans’ views towards soda. Fewer people report drinking soda regularly, potentially driven by increasing reports of the health harms of soda, including obesity, tooth decay, and diabetes. The recent success of these laws, coupled with changing attitudes, will likely encourage other communities to consider similar taxes in the near future.
-By Stephanie Morain, Ph.D., M.P.H., assistant professor at the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor College of Medicine