The Soda Tax is most clearly a health issue. Science now has shown that sugary drinks kill by causing diabetes (amputations, blindness, kidney failure), heart attacks and cancer. We now know that you do not need to be overweight or obese to be at risk.
But wait, there's more. The Soda Tax is more than a health issue and more than a social justice issue. It is also an environmental issue of vast importance.
Ironically, the soda industry, which we turn to for quenching our thirst and restoring needed fluids, wastes shockingly huge amounts of water. It also produces unnecessary green house gases (GHGs) and requires extensive use of resources for packaging.
In California, we live in a water-stressed region suffering from the worst drought in memory. It is feared that with climate change even a 2 degree C rise will result in loss of half of the Sierra snowpack. That means loss of half of the water supply for much of the San Francisco Bay area. We are not alone. According to the United Nations, two-thirds of the world's population is projected to face water scarcity by 2025.
How much water is used in the production of a bottle of soda? If we include the water used in the production of the ingredients, such as sugar or high fructose corn syrup, the amount of water actually used to produce a half-liter of soda (about 16 oz.) varies from 150 to 300 liters of water. That's a ratio of 300-600: 1.
A typical bathtub holds about 90 liters of water. So each time you drink a 16-ounce soda, you have wasted two or three bathtubs full of fresh water in the process.
The issue of water wastage in soda production has been most acutely felt in India where farmers have been battling Coca-Cola and Pepsi for years. Indian farmers have accused the soda giants of depleting the water table and leaving local farmers without enough water for their crops. Neither company pays for the water it extracts. Well-known environmental activist and winner of the Right Livelihood Award, Vandana Shiva of the Research Foundation for Science Technology and Ecology put it this way: "Coca-Cola and PepsiCo are engaged in a water war against the people of India. Their bottling plants are daily stealing millions of litres of water, thereby denying local communities their fundamental right to water."
How big a problem is Big Soda's big appetite for fresh water? Consider this: Coca-Cola uses enough fresh water every day to meet the world's drinking water requirement for 10 days.
Then there's the problem of packaging. Let's consider the aluminum can. Touted by the beverage and aluminum industries as the most recyclable package in America, only about half of aluminum cans are actually recycled. The other half end up in our landfills. Worse yet, the trashed cans are replaced with new ones made from virgin materials.
Jenny Gitlitz is the Research Director of Container Research Institute, a non-profit environmental organization. She explains: "Each ton of aluminum cans requires 5 tons of bauxite ore to be strip-mined, crushed, washed, and refined into alumina before it is smelted. The process creates about 5 tons of caustic red mud residues which can seep into surface and groundwater."
In addition, aluminum can production requires huge amounts of energy, amounting to 3 percent of worldwide electricity production, one-third of which comes from coal-generated electricity and half from hydroelectric generation requiring the damming of rivers.
The Berkeley-based International Rivers Network claims that: "These dams have irreversible impacts on biodiversity, and displace thousands of riverbank dwellers and indigenous peoples. The aluminum companies are the principal force behind the Brazilian government's plans to dam the major rivers of the Amazon."
Aluminum can production is also a major contributor to global green house gases. The global aluminum industry produced 95 million tons of GHGs in 2005. Primary aluminum smelting also generates sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions, which are contributors to smog and acid rain.
Glass bottles produce twice as many GHGs as the aluminum cans in their production process, and only 25 percent of them are recycled. Plastic is not much better. Thirty percent of plastic bottles are recycled nationally, and millions of barrels of oil are needed daily to produce the new ones. For every one hundred two-liter plastic bottles produced, approximately 10-50 pounds of GHGs are produced.
Given that we live in a time when climate change threatens the very future of civilization, it seems prudent to find ways to significantly reduce any unnecessary use of aluminum, glass and plastic.
Predictions on how much a Soda Tax will decrease consumption vary from a low of 6 percent to a high of 22 percent, depending, in part, on the size of the tax. The first month after the historic Mexican Soda Tax was enacted, countrywide soda consumption dropped 6 percent. At two cents an ounce, the proposed San Francisco Soda tax is more than four times larger than the Mexican Soda tax and would very likely result in a significantly greater decrease in consumption. A modest 10 percent decrease in consumption, coupled with half of that decrease being replaced by tap water, would result in over 60 million gallons of water saved annually. Similar calculations could be made for GHGs saved.
In addition to San Francisco, Soda Taxes are being currently being considered in Berkeley, Seattle and and state of Illinois. If successful, we can expect each to reap a harvest of improved public and environmental health.
A simple policy change like the Soda Tax can help us waste less water, lower our GHG production, and lessen the pollution of our air, water and soil. At the same time, it can fund vital programs in our schools, parks and neighborhoods to improve nutrition and physical education opportunities for our children. It's a win-win-win: a win for the environment, a win for our children, and a win for our communities.
Follow Jeff Ritterman, MD on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@JeffRitterman