Popping the top off a bottle of pop? Gulping down a Big Gulp? Savor it while it lasts. Because no matter where you live, your right to slurp a soda faces a growing assault by a host of meddling federal, state and local lawmakers.
You’re probably familiar with then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s campaign to ban sodas larger than 16 ounces from being sold in many places in the city. The law, oddly dubbed the “Big Gulp Ban”—odd because the ban would not have applied to Big Gulps or to anything else sold at the dozens of 7-11s in the city—was overturned by New York State’s highest court in 2014.
But bans aren’t the only way that policymakers like Bloomberg have come up with in recent years to restrict your drink choices. Last year, Berkeley, Calif., voters became the first in the nation to pass a soda tax.
The tax adds nearly $1.50 to the cost of a six-pack of soda. And just last week, local officials in neighboring San Francisco—where voters already rejected a Berkeley-style soda tax—passed a measure that will require mandatory warning labels (the kind you see on alcohol and tobacco products) on all soda ads in the city.
“WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes and tooth decay,” the required warning states.
Because of the law’s wording, it will also apply to ads for drinks such as Starbucks’ popular Frappuccino. But because it only applies to beverages, it won’t snare high-calorie foods like doughnuts, the city’s famed sourdough bread or that most of famous of San Francisco treats, Rice-A-Roni.
Support for laws like these is spreading. An upcoming New York Times food policy conference, Food for Tomorrow, asks whether taxing soda is “a sweet solution.” Given that the only speaker on the topic at the Times-sponsored event, professor Marion Nestle, is “a major proponent of soda taxes,” it’s not too hard to figure out the answer. Food for today may include soda, but food for tomorrow will not.
How did soda become the curious target of those who make and influence policy? At a time of high national obesity levels, it’s easy to point the finger at the sugar-flavored carbonated water beverages that many Americans drink regularly.
It’s true that soda is no health food. Perhaps the strongest argument in favor of a soda tax—local or national—is that the money raised by such a tax could be used by the government to help fund education and prevention programs aimed at making people healthier. It’s a win-win situation, supporters argue.
But there’s reason to be cautious. State lotteries were supposed to provide money and resources to public schools and, in turn, to improve educational outcomes. But educational achievement has stagnated in recent decades. And lotteries have served as little more than a tax on the low-income Americans who buy the bulk of the tickets.
Not coincidentally, because low-income Americans drink more soda than do their middle- and upper-income peers, soda taxes will take more money from those with the least money to spare. What’s more, Berkeley’s soda tax, like many lottery taxes, goes toward the city’s general fund and can be used to fund anything in the city—from a new fitness park to a new parking lot.
Here are six figures to keep in mind when someone tells you that limiting your right to drink sweetened beverages—via a host of taxes, bans or other restrictions—makes for smart and effective policy.
According to recent data, sweetened drinks such as soda are not the largest (or even the second-largest) source of calories in the American diet. Soda ranks third, behind grain-based desserts and breads in terms of contributing to caloric intake, and it provides just over 5 percent of the total calories we consume.
Obesity has been on the rise for decades while soda consumption has fallen. Federal government data shows that Americans have become fatter even as they consumed 12.5 percent less soda between 1999 and 2010. Those figures are strong evidence that soda’s not the culprit that lawmakers and activists claim it is in the rise of obesity.
San Francisco lawmakers passed the city’s mandatory-soda-warning law by a unanimous 9-0 vote. That’s despite the fact that drinks containing “added sugar” such as Frappuccinos and Coca-Cola often contain less total sugar than drinks that contain no “added” sugar at all, such as orange juice, other pure fruit juices and the aforementioned foods like doughnuts. This makes the required warning labels unhelpful and misleading. What’s more, as a Harvard School of Public Health publication notes, your “body doesn’t distinguish between natural or added sugars” and doesn’t know the difference between 50 grams of naturally occurring sugar and 50 grams of added sugar. No matter how little or how much, sugar is sugar.
That’s the name of a California law that requires cancer and birth-defect warnings on many food staples including bread, chicken, olives, prunes and coffee. Californians are already so overwarned by the law that the warning signs that greet grocery shoppers are widely ignored. But that hasn’t stopped state lawmakers from introducing a bill to force San Francisco-style soda warnings throughout the state.
Various proposals by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) to implement a national soda tax have been beaten back by her colleagues in Congress. Undaunted, Rep. DeLauro introduced the measure once again this year.
Speaking of national soda taxes, they’re now a fact of life south of the border. Preliminary results of a new study of Mexico’s national soda tax, which took effect last year, found that Mexicans are indeed buying less soda. But the study provides no evidence the tax has helped a single person in Mexico lose weight. Instead, it talks—as pro-tax studies often do—about raising “awareness” and increasing “dialogue.” Well, it sure did. Mexicans have railed against what they refer to as the “impuesto Bloomberg” (or “Bloomberg tax”), owing to the donation of $10 million by the former mayor’s charity to help push through the tax.
Do the charges against soda add up? The numbers say they don’t.
Baylen J. Linnekin is the executive director of Keep Food Legal Foundation and an adjunct professor at George Mason University Law School, where he teaches Food Law & Policy.