Soda Tax Myths: Do Soda Taxes Reduce Obesity Rates?

by Dana Woldow on March 6, 2014

As the first glossy anti-soda tax mailer was delivered to the homes of San Francisco voters this week, the SF Chronicle marveled that it was the earliest campaign flyer ever seen for a November election, while over at 48 Hills, editor Tim Redmond said it set a “new record” for hyperbole. More troubling is that the mailer, paid for by the American Beverage Association, cites a public health study to justify its claim that soda taxes raise food costs without reducing obesity rates. In fact, the study cited found no such thing. In fact, it found just the opposite.

The text of the mailer includes 5 footnotes, presumably to convince the reader that the ABA is not just spouting off opinions, but rather documented “facts”. With the footnote citations printed in tiny white letters against a black background, making them nearly impossible to read, who is going to bother to check to see that the “facts” are accurate?

The mailer makes the point that SF is a pretty expensive place to live, which will come as no surprise to any local resident. Then it says “While Mayor Lee is trying to address affordability, two supervisors, Scott Wiener and Eric Mar, are pushing a new tax on certain beverages like sports drinks, juice drinks, sodas and teas. They say it’s to make our city healthier, but we all know that taxes don’t reduce obesity rates.” That last sentence about how we all “know” that taxes don’t reduce obesity rates, is footnoted to a March 2009 study done by Lisa Powell, PhD, at the Institute for Health Research and Policy at the University of Illinois, Chicago.

The study, which was a review of other research done between 1990 and 2008, found that while small taxes (for example, 3 cents on a 12 ounce can of soda) have little impact, “nontrivial pricing interventions may have some measurable effects on Americans’ weight outcomes, particularly for children and adolescents, low-[socio-economic status] populations, and those most at risk for overweight.”

In other words, a larger tax, like the 2 cents per ounce tax proposed for SF that would add 24 cents to the price of a 12 ounce can of soda, can indeed have a significant positive impact for those most in need of better health outcomes – kids, poor people, and those already at risk for obesity. Exactly the opposite of what the ABA mailer claims this study shows.

If the name of the study’s first author, Lisa Powell, sounds familiar to you, it may be because she was also first author on another study that appeared recently in the American Journal of Public Health that concluded that sugar sweetened beverage taxes “do not have a negative impact on state-level employment, and industry claims of regional job losses are overstated and may mislead lawmakers and constituents.”

In other words, another popular beverage industry argument – that soda taxes are job killers – is just a myth, not “fact”.

What’s the takeaway from this Big Soda-sponsored mailer? Don’t take anything the beverage industry tell you at face value. They don’t have the facts on their side, so they are just making up new ones to support their opinions.

But there’s something more that soda tax supporters can do to combat what will likely be a tidal wave of deceptive campaign advertising coming their way between now and the November election.

The mailer being delivered this week comes with a pre-addressed, postage paid postcard designed for anti tax folks to provide their contact information to the beverage industry front group Coalition for an Affordable City. But there is nothing to prevent soda tax supporters from writing any message they care to on the postcard and mailing it in. Or writing nothing at all and mailing it in.

As it says on the front of the postcard, “Postage will be paid by the addressee.” Every card from this flyer mailed back to the Coalition costs Big Soda money – 34 cents for postage plus about 10 cents more for the per piece fee for business reply mail.

So if you don’t like having misinformation and scare tactics delivered to your door, send the American Beverage Association a piece of your mind, and make them pay for the privilege of receiving it.

Read other articles in the Soda Tax Myths series:

Soda Tax Myths: Are Beverage Companies Friends to the Poor?

Soda Tax Myths: The Arkansas Argument

Soda Tax Myths: Soda Taxes Distract from Real Issues

Truth an Early Casualty in SF’s Soda Tax Fight

Soda Tax Myths: Are Beverages Being Unfairly Targeted?

More on debunking soda tax myths.

Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at PEACHSF.org. Follow her on Twitter @nestwife, or read more than 140 characters of her writing in her complete archive.

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