Study Suggests Berkeley Soda Tax Drops Sugary Beverage Consumption

Posted On: 8/26/2016

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TAGS: University of California soda tax study, sugary beverage consumption study, Berkeley soda tax, soda tax impact, vending machine soda sales, low income neighborhood soda consumption

BERKELEY, CA -- A new study from the University of California shows a 21% drop in the consumption of soda and other sugary beverages in Berkeley's low-income neighborhoods following the city's penny-per-fl.oz. tax on the beverages.

While Berkeley, the first U.S. city to pass a soda tax, saw a substantial decline in the consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks in the months following implementation of the tax in March 2015, neighboring San Francisco, where a soda-tax measure was defeated, and Oakland, where a soda tax is being considered, saw a 4% increase, according to the study published in the American Journal of Public Health.

"Low-income communities bear the brunt of the health consequences of obesity and diabetes, so this decline in soda and sugary beverage consumption is very encouraging," said study senior author Kristine Madsen, an associate professor of public health at UC Berkeley. "We are looking for tools that support people in making healthy choices, and the soda tax appears to be an effective tool."

Berkeley residents surveyed for the study reported a 63% increase in drinking bottled or tap water, while their Oakland and San Francisco counterparts reported only a 19% rise in water consumption. Only 2% of the Berkeley residents polled reported that the tax led them to shop for sugary drinks in neighboring cities that do not have a soda tax.

The Berkeley tax, known as Measure D, covers carbonated soft drinks, sweetened fruit-flavored drinks, energy drinks and caffeinated drinks, including iced tea and iced coffee. Diet drinks and sodas are exempt.

In the UC Berkeley study, researchers surveyed residents in low-income, high-foot-traffic commercial areas of Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco. Neighborhoods were selected to represent a racially and socioeconomically diverse sample. They polled more than 2,500 people between 18 and 94, one-third of whom were interviewed before the tax was passed, and two-thirds who were interviewed one year later, a few months after the tax was implemented.

The excise tax is paid by distributors of sugary beverages and is reflected in shelf prices, as a previous UC Berkeley study showed, which can influence consumers' decisions.

This latest UC Berkeley study focused on the short-term impact of the soda tax on consumption and does not claim to determine whether the post-tax decline was due to higher retail prices or greater awareness of the health consequences of sugary drinks.

"It's possible that successful campaigning [for] the tax raised awareness of the health impacts of sugary drinks, which may have also shifted dietary choices in Berkeley," said the study's lead author, Jennifer Falbe, a postdoctoral fellow at UC Berkeley. Future studies may help distinguish between the impact of increased prices and awareness, Falbe said.

The American Beverage Association said the Berkeley study has flaws and there is no indication the tax has had a measurable impact on public health.

More than two dozen U.S. cities have attempted to pass soda taxes, and failed. In June, Philadelphia became the second city in the nation to pass a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks. Philadelphia's tax, which will take effect in January 2017, will also include diet drinks.

Oakland, CA has a soda-tax measure on the ballot this year.