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Jeff Ritterman, MD Headshot

Tax a Cola, Improve Life for San Francisco's Children

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In "Tax a Cola, Spend More Money Without Meaningful Benefits," Professor Jayson Lusk attempts to refute the claims I make in "Tax a Cola, Save the Planet."

I will answer the professor's concerns as best I can.

Professor Lusk writes:

"Ritterman notably avoids directly making the claim that soda taxes will significantly reduce weight. This is probably because of the many real-world studies published in reputable academic journals showing that variation in tax rates on sodas across locales has only tiny effect on obesity."

Actually, the study he cites shows that soda taxes "have a statistically significant impact on behavior and weight," meaning people consumed less soda and lost weight. It's just that the impact was small. The study evaluated extremely weak soda taxes of 3 percent that were not in any way coupled with a public health campaign demonizing sugar.

In other words, without any accompanying public health education about why sugary drinks are unhealthy, and without the tax revenue being earmarked for programs in childhood nutrition and physical education, a simple 3 percent price increase resulted in significantly less soda consumed and a significant drop in weight. Spinning this as evidence against soda taxes is misleading. Many experts feel that to be effective soda taxes should be 20 percent and accompanied by an active public health campaign.

In Mexico, a soda tax of 1 peso/liter was enacted in January and soda sales dropped about 6 percent the following month. While it is too early to make any firm predictions, this is clearly a hopeful sign. Although the Mexican soda tax is small (about 5 percent when buying a liter of soda), there has been an active public health campaign in Mexico for the last six years demonizing sugary drinks by the nonprofit organization El Poder del Consumidor (the Power of the Consumer). The success of the Mexican soda tax highlights the importance of actively engaging the community in understanding the adverse health impacts of sugary drinks.

The San Francisco soda tax proposal, at 2 cents per ounce, is more than four times larger than the Mexican soda tax. It is also being accompanied by a major public health campaign demonizing sugary drinks. If it passes, we can expect consumption in San Francisco to drop significantly. Researchers suggest that a 10 percent drop in consumption is a conservative estimate. That could mean fewer cases of diabetes, fewer heart attacks and less cancer.

Professor Lusk agrees with me that a tax will decrease soda consumption. He says: "Ritterman argues that a soda tax will result in less soda being consumed, and he's probably right." He then continues: "But does that mean that there will be less water and less aluminum consumed? Well, it depends what consumers drink and eat instead of soda." I agree. But even if half of the sugary drink consumption is replaced by tap water, a realistic goal, we can save huge quantities of fresh water, aluminum, glass and plastic.

Professor Lusk's final concern is that "many of us want our tax system to be fair, and taxes on food and sodas are regressive because the burden is borne relatively more by the poor, who spend a larger proportion of their income on food than the rich."

We are proposing taxing soda and other sugary drinks, which have absolutely no nutritional value. We are not proposing a food tax. Science has shown conclusively that sugary drinks are linked to type-2 diabetes, heart attacks and cancer. Soda is heavily marketed to poor and minority communities. In San Francisco, the communities with the highest hospitalization rates for type-2 diabetes are the same communities with the highest rates of soda consumption. Type-2 diabetes is far more costly and far more regressive than any soda tax ever could be.

Furthermore, in San Francisco, the money raised from the soda tax will all go to nutrition and physical education programs for San Francisco's children with a special emphasis on those children with the greatest need. Among other things, this includes investing in improving school lunches, and offering San Francisco's children more recreation opportunities. Professor Lusk's assertion that soda taxes "Spend More Money Without Meaningful Benefits" is clearly not true in the case of the San Francisco Soda Tax effort.

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