San Francisco has joined New York City at the forefront of the public health debate on soda. The city’s November ballot will likely include a proposal for a soda tax of two cents per ounce on drinks with added sugar that are over 25 calories. The revenue will be used to fund active recreation and nutrition programs in the city. Similar taxes are under consideration in Berkeley, Calif., and Illinois. In New York, the Court of Appeals agreed to hear the case on the Bloomberg soda ban that was originally struck down in March 2013. Increased soda consumption has been directly linked to rising rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease — this is why it is leading the way in critical and necessary legislation to fight obesity across the country.
Opponents of the soda tax have called it ineffective and labeled it a regressive tax that targets the poor. While many conflicting studies have come out on the effectiveness of the tax in decreasing obesity, the tax clearly limits the sales of soda. Just one month after taking effect, a soda tax in Mexico led to a 5-percent decrease in sales. The proposed San Francisco tax rate is significantly higher than the one used in Mexico and will also be accompanied by public health campaigns specifically targeting soda. The American Public Health Association estimates even a one-cent-per-ounce tax could lead to a 10- to 20-percent drop in the consumption of sodas.
Unfortunately, this tax would put a higher burden on the poor, who spend a larger portion of their income on food. The San Francisco proposal has found somewhat of a solution for this problem — it mandates that the tax revenue is focused on programs in low-income communities where obesity rates are highest. Some of these programs include student nutrition services and education, Department of Public Health campaigns and grants for health-oriented community organizations. The ideal solution would be to lower the cost of healthy food through more efficient farming subsidies, but this would require a massive, difficult overhaul of federal and state systems. It would also have to be funded by taxes in some form, and it is highly unlikely subsidies alone could make healthy food cheaper than junk food.
The bottom line is that cities need to start heavily investing in public health campaigns against obesity. The money for these programs has to come from somewhere, and cities are not likely to cut other essential services for preventative public health needs. The tax in San Francisco is expected to generate $30 million a year, all of which will be put back into making healthier communities. Hopefully this plan will be approved in November and can serve as a model for the rest of the country.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, April 8 print edition. Tess Woosley is a staff columnist. Scientific Society is published every Tuesday. Email her at [email protected]