It looks like the nation’s first soda tax is having the hoped-for effect. According to a just-released study, the start of Berkeley’s tax, which went into effect last January, correlates with a one-fifth decline in residents’ sugary-drink consumption in certain parts of the city. It’s the first official analysis of the tax’s impact, compiled by researchers at UC Berkeley.
For the study, researchers compared Berkeley’s soda drink sales from April through July 2014 with sales for January through May 2015, right after the tax went into effect. They found consumption dropped 21 percent in low-income neighborhoods (areas where consumption was also likely to be higher, and the health consequences greater). During that same period, they say soda sales in similar San Francisco and Oakland neighborhoods climbed 4 percent. Moreover, Berkeley residents drank 63 percent more water with the tax in place, while water consumption over in San Francisco and Oakland increased just 19 percent.
Not shockingly, industry groups don’t care much for this survey (or, presumably, for the rallying effect it could have nationwide). The American Beverage Association tells The Wall Street Journal that street surveys, like this one, which draw on people’s memories, are “inherently unreliable,” and that the researchers offer no further indication the tax has measurably affected public health.
It’s worth noting that America’s soda-drinking rate is drying up without much assistance anyway, and that the effectiveness of placing so-called “sin taxes” on soda is debatable. (For instance, under Mexico’s national tax, consumption first dropped, only to pick back up again.) Even the authors here concede it’s unwise to read too much into Berkeley’s tax-levying itself, suggesting people instead remember other factors could be at play, too, like the deafening battle Big Soda waged against critics in the city’s public square leading up to the big vote. That might have raised residents’ awareness about the unhealthiness of sugary drinks, they concede. If so, though, that’s probably even better news for health advocates.