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More cities pass soda taxes on sugary drinks

SAN FRANCISCO -- Voters in four U.S. cities approved or appeared likely to approve special taxes on sugary drinks, energizing advocates who say the victories are indicative of growing momentum for measures that discourage people from guzzling calories.

The penny-per-ounce taxes in three San Francisco Bay Area cities will apply to energy, sweetened tea and sports drinks, but not to diet sodas or naturally sweetened drinks. On Tuesday, measures in San Francisco and Oakland, California, captured about 60 percent of the vote, with approval higher in neighboring Albany.

In Boulder, Colorado, a 2-cent per ounce tax was headed toward victory, although ballots were still being counted on Wednesday.

“This is a very strong message to the soda industry, and this will lead to the introduction of new proposals all across the country,” said Dr. John Maa, secretary of the San Francisco Medical Society.

Philadelphia becomes battleground over sugary drink tax 02:46

The four cities join Berkeley, California, which passed a penny-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks in 2014, and Philadelphia, which passed a similar tax this summer. The campaigns had financial backing from billionaire Michael Bloomberg, who tried unsuccessfully to limit the size of sugary drinks as mayor of New York.

Philanthropists Laura and John Arnold, who made his fortune as a hedge funder, also donated to the campaigns for sugary drink taxes.

Susan Neely, president of the American Beverage Association, which represents Coke, Pepsi and others, has said the proposals are being pushed in places more likely to pass them.

Before Berkeley, dozens of similar efforts were defeated or failed to gain traction, in part because they were outmatched by well-financed campaigns by the beverage association. In a statement Wednesday, the industry group said it respects the decision of voters and that it remains focused on working with community and public health organizations to change behaviors.

The industry had said such taxes unfairly single out beverages for fueling obesity, and that grocers would be forced to raise prices on other items to cover the cost. The tax is levied on distributors, rather than on customers at the register.

Coca-Cola Co., which also makes Sprite, Powerade and Fanta, said it believes there are better ways to encourage moderation in consumption of sugary beverages. The Atlanta-based company has touted its mini-cans of sodas as alternatives. PepsiCo Inc., based in Purchase, New York, said last month that it would work to have at least two-thirds of its global beverage volume have 100 calories or less from added sugars per serving by 2025.

Bloomberg Philanthropies said the soda taxes, now in six cities, will help reduce obesity and diabetes.

“The tide has clearly turned on this issue, and momentum has swung in our favor,” said Howard Wolfson of Bloomberg Philanthropies in a statement. “I am confident in the months ahead more municipalities will seek to implement soda taxes to help their citizens, and we will be willing to help them as they do.”

CBS San Francisco reports that in the year since the Berkeley tax took effect, there’s evidence that it has made a difference in residents’ habits. A study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that overall consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages declined 21 percent in Berkeley, even while it increased slightly in surrounding communities.

The survey of almost 3,000 low-income Berkeley residents found they drank 36 percent fewer sports drinks, 29 percent fewer energy drinks and 26 percent less regular soda. 

In the Bay Area, spending by tax proponents and opponents of the measures was expected to top $50 million, fueled by heavy contributions from dueling interests. It was by far the costliest proposition in San Francisco history.

A similar proposal in San Francisco failed in 2014 to get enough votes for a dedicated tax, which requires two-thirds approval. This year, backers went for a general tax, which requires a simple majority and doesn’t stipulate how the revenue is spent.

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