Fight Big Soda

David Leonhardt OCT. 6, 2016

Soft drink and soda bottles at El Ahorro market in San Francisco. Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Over the next few weeks, I want to use this newsletter to call your attention to some big issues that are on the ballot this year but getting obscured by the presidential race.

One of them is obesity.
For years, the soda industry has been using the undeniable fact that the obesity epidemic has many causes to evade responsibility for its own role. Americans eat too much, the lobbyists for Coke and Pepsi will say. Or: Americans need more exercise!

All of which is true. Yet it’s also true that soda drinking is one of the biggest causes of the obesity increase.

Calorie consumption from soda roughly tripled from the late 1970s to the late 1990s, accounting for about half the country’s total increase in calories. Soda also has zero nutritional value. It is sugar water — empty calories that don’t make people feel full.

Fortunately, the public has started to realize this, and soda consumption has fallen since the late ’90s. But it’s still far too high. Coca-Cola and PepsiCo remain major purveyors of obesity, tooth decay, diabetes, heart disease and other scourges that damage people’s health and raise medical costs.

Next month, three California cities — San Francisco, Oakland and Albany — will each vote on a penny-per-ounce tax on sugary beverages, including soda. Philadelphia and Berkeley already have similar taxes.

And they work. Academic research has found that taxes reduce soda drinking, Margot Sanger-Katz of The Times reports. They do so without resorting to rules — such as the failed attempt to limit soda sizes in New York — that evoke a “nanny state” to many people. Often, the taxes don’t even pinch the budgets of low-income families, because they respond by drinking less soda.

As usual, Big Soda is spending a lot of money in California to fight a tax. Also as usual, the industry is resorting to dishonesty, by falsely claiming that a tax will somehow make other grocery items more expensive.

We shouldn’t be surprised when the soda industry claims it’s really just looking out for the rest of us. But we shouldn’t listen either. More soda taxes and less soda drinking will make for a healthier country.

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